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Published Sep. 14, 2009


Helmand Province is by far Afghanistan's leader in opium cultivation. It is no coincidence that Helmand is also where U.S. forces have concentrated their attacks in the most recent offensive. Opium fuels the insurgency, providing the Taliban with as much as $470 million in 2008, according to the United Nations. The most recent survey from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime gamely applauds the decrease in opium cultivation since 2007, but more than 90 percent of the world's heroin originates in seven adjacent provinces in the south and west of Afghanistan. Drought, high wheat prices and even government propaganda campaigns may retard the spread of the cultivation, but no other crop pays as handsomely. And efforts by military forces to eradicate the crops have often done more to anger cash-strapped farmers than the Taliban's relentless taxation. The government takes its share, too. In fact, reports the New York Times, President Hamid Karzai's running mate, Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, has since 2002 been strongly suspected of trafficking heroin by the planeload to Russia. Finding an ally in Afghanistan who is not implicated in the drug trade is hard, which is why the United States has yet to attempt to censor Karzai for his attachment to Fahim.

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From a certain altitude, the border separating Pakistan and Afghanistan seems to make some sense. The line drawn in 1893 by Sir Mortimer Durand, a British diplomat in India, largely follows the crest of the Spin Ghar mountain range. The goal at the time was for the British, who had fought two unsuccessful wars against the Afghans, to put a 14,000-foot wall between their interests in northwest India (what would later become Pakistan) and the fiercely resistant Afghans. The border might make geographic sense, but demographically it's meaningless. Pashtuns, the dominant ethnic group in south and east Afghanistan, also live in large numbers in west and north Pakistan. During the 10-year war against the Soviet Union, mujahedeen fighters traversed that border freely. Taliban fighters use the Pakistan side of the border to rest and rearm in the same way, proving that Durand's legacy is respected more by foreigners than the people who live along it.

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The results of the presidential election Aug. 20 will not be known for days, and a runoff vote may well be required between the incumbent Hamid Karzai and his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. But the prize for victory looks dubious. With the Taliban active in large swaths of the country, what does being president mean? Wags call Karzai "Mayor of Kabul," an indictment of his loss of support even in the south where his Pashtun roots once gave his administration some legitimacy. Given Kabul's increasing isolation and the intense tribalism of the populace, it's easy to generalize that Afghanistan is ungovernable. Its problem may be that it has had too many governments. In the past half-century, Afghanistan has been ruled by kings, secular socialists, Muslim fundamentalists and a democratically elected president. But no matter the government, corruption and abuse of power have never been far away, virtually guaranteeing the widespread disaffection that leads one extremist group to overthrow another.

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The enemy of my enemy is ... my enemy. That's the Afghanistan twist on the old saw about wartime alliances. After the Soviets invaded Afghanistan on Dec. 25, 1979, the United States saw an opportunity to cause trouble for its Cold War adversary by channeling billions of dollars through Pakistan to the collection of warlords and foreign fighters collectively known as the mujahedeen. Once the Soviets retreated in 1988 and the United States turned its attention elsewhere, the fractious mujahedeen turned their guns on each other. The most rigidly fundamentalist of them, known as the Taliban, gained a foothold in the southern city of Kandahar in 1994 and two years later seized control of Kabul. They banned music, abolished education for girls and publicly executed violators of religious law. A pariah on the world stage, the Taliban received plenty of support from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia and offered sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, who set up al- Qaida training camps. Driven from power after 9/11, the Taliban melted into the border region. It is hiding no more. Monolithic or organized it is not, and its fighting strength is 25,000 at best, but one think tank estimates the Taliban has a "permanent presence" in 72 percent of the country.

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It's not often that a road project could determine the fate of a country, but that might well be true of the national Ring Road, a nearly 2,000-mile circuit of paved highway that is intended to connect Afghanistan's major cities. Without decent roads to transport goods easily within the country, it is hard to imagine ever breaking the death grip poverty has on the 33 million Afghans, who have a per capita income of $800 and don't expect to live to 50. Only 3 in 10 can read. Various governments have dreamed of the Ring Road, but a near constant state of war since 1979 has more or less stunted those ambitions. Nevertheless, construction began in 2003 with major financing from the United States ($492 million) and the Asian Development Bank ($900 million). The road is nearly 90 percent done and would be finished if not for the continued efforts of the Taliban to kidnap and kill the workers; 162 workers have been killed on the southern half alone. Militants command major sections of the highway every night.

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Keeping up

Here are some solid sources for staying up to date on Afghanistan:

The Af-Pak Channel, a combined effort by Foreign Policy magazine and the New American Foundation, offers a very good running collection of analysis and commentary. Find it at

The New York Times' "At War" is a reported blog from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and other areas of conflict in the post-9/11 era. Particularly good is a post called "Unexamined Civil-Military Relations," by Capt. Tim Hsia, who looked at the status of civil-military relations today and asked whether Americans are less averse to protracted military conflicts because so few serve. Read the blog at

Steve Coll's "Think Tank" blog at is quite good.

The Brookings Afghanistan Index gathers security, social and economic data in one place. Read it at