Waiting to be helped in a cellular phone company office in Islamabad last December, I struck a conversation with another gentleman who seemed to be from the tribal areas of Pakistan's western border with Afghanistan.
This gentleman in his '60s had a loud and boisterous voice with a distinctive accent. When he discovered I was from the United States, he asked me if I knew a particular member of the American consulate in Islamabad. Then he told me a story about how this gentleman from the consulate helped him secure a visa to the U.S. for one of his relatives by arranging a fake wedding.
Weddings last at least three days in Pakistan. He said they arranged the whole charade of food and entertainment for the bride and groom. The bride was specifically imported from the U.S. temporarily to put the whole and show and make it look legitimate. Then he went on to say that he and many of the people in his community were growing poppies to cultivate opium to process heroine.
From our conversation I gathered that he knew many people at "appropriate" places.
I have not thought much of this conversation until I read the news article by Carlotta Gall of the New York Times on Nov. 19. She wrote, "Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the source of most of the opium and heroin on Europe's streets, was up sharply this year, reaching the highest levels in the country's history and in the world," reporting a United Nation announcement. The November issue of the National Geographic published similar information.
Elections were held in Afghanistan in October to elect a new president. Mr. Hamid Karazai, the U.S.-appointed president, was elected with about a 56 percent majority. He is considered by many as mayor of half of Kabul. The rest of Kabul, and the majority of the country, is run by tribal leaders whose primary income is export of opium and heroin. The money from the sale of these products is used to finance their armies and bands of thugs who rule the local tribes in their respective areas.
There are also rumors that some enterprising Americans are capitalizing on these opportunities and are involved in the drug cultivation, transport and trade. Although people in Washington may be happy with our overthrow of the Taliban, and the installation of a puppet regime, we fool ourselves by believing that people in Afghanistan are free and that the human rights abuses have ended.
Nothing is further from the truth. We have just replaced ideological warlords with materialistic warlords who can be manipulated by money. Human rights abuses are as prevalent as they were before the defeat of Taliban. The freedom that was restricted by tribal leaders for Taliban are now restricted by the same or similar tribal warlords for the Karazai regime. They are in most cases as ruthless as they were before.
This is all happening under the vigilance of American and multinational troops. Additionally, the American press no longer makes Afghanistan front page news. Consequently, we end up believing that there is no problem. The fact of the matter is that Afghanistan is developing into another time bomb which may explode in the future, perhaps with a different intensity and direction.
Issues of drug trafficking and human rights abuses are large and seemingly overwhelming. Afghanistan has an ancient culture and a very new government. American troops in Afghanistan, who have yet to master the art of understanding the culture of the Afghani people, continue to face volatile environments.
With these variables it is understandable that tribal allegiances and feuds may remain the basis of common law. Nurturing stability in Afghanistan will not be simple. And this is a crucial point, as although American press coverage of Afghanistan has declined, we must not console ourselves with the notion that all is well in that region.
America has played a profound role in changing the shape of Afghanistan's government, but the faces, culture and allegiances may still be the same. It is surely a country that will undergo even more changes in the years to come.
The drugs produced in Afghanistan by the warlords and smuggled into Europe and America will kill people just as well as the bombs that zealots of al-Qaida may explode. We must not allow the culture of terror camps be replaced by the culture of drug production and trafficking.
Taj Khan of Lodi is a consultant and retired engineering manager for the Sacramento Municipal Utility District.