After three rainless years and the worst drought in thirty years which had forced four million people to leave their homes, the reservoir behind the Dahla Dam was almost completely parched. Arghandab, Kandahar Province, Afghanistan. 23 March 2001.
Riding in the truck approaching us was a group of Taliban who had gone to shoot ducks. They did not allow us to see the wreckage of a Soviet helicopter gunship and the scattered bones of the crew that had been found a month before.
The gunship must have been downed during the Arghandab Offensive in May-June 1987, when patrols flew patterns along the 15–20-km-long and 7-km-wide “Green Zone” bordering the north bank of the river.
Intersected by a dense network of canals and vineyards and used by the Mujahideen to construct organized defenses, including houses, adobe forts, walls and pomegranate-orchard earth works, this zone—sometimes called the “Bread Basket of Afghanistan” and the country’s second major opium farm after Helmand—confronted U.S. troops and their coalition allies with exactly the same challenges in the 21st century.
The 55-meter-high Dahla Dam, an embankment made of earth and rock fill supplemented by six saddle dams, was built by the Americans between 1950 and 1952 as the primary source of irrigation for Kandahar Province.
During the Soviet occupation the Arghandab irrigation system fell into decay and the reservoir was left to silt up.
The infrastructure was repaired with Canadian assistance between 2009 and 2012, after the rocky areas of the dam had been cleared of mines by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The planned raising of the dam that it initiated and that was seen as crucial to increasing the available water volumes was subsequently abandoned due to financial issues.
When built, the Dahla Dam and the irrigation system below it were under the control of the Helmand and Arghandab Valley Authority. Modelled on the Tennessee Valley Authority, this implanted what the historian Arnold Toynbee in 1961 called “a piece of America” into the heart of the vast desert south of Kandahar—right on the spot where Lashkargah, the winter quarters of the Ghaznavid Dynasty, had once sprawled.
Toynbee found that the area had ceased to be a part of traditional Afghanistan. Straight roads and equally straight canals cut through the desert like a knife. Alexander’s Arachosia looked like Nevada and the Helmand the engineers had left bleeding resembled Colorado.
This American high-handedness in dealing with nature was a new experience for the Afghans. Until the arrival of modern technology the Afghan had “humoured Nature,” to use Toynbee’s words, not hit her over the head to get her to meet his needs: “He goes to meet Nature; he does not expect Nature to come and meet him.”
As agricultural production rose and the average farm income increased tenfold, the American project also created fantastic opportunities for drug lords. After all, plots of poppy plants are easily mixed in among plots of tomatoes or okra.
Opium poppy cultivation in the Arghandab “Green Zone” and in Helmand—part of the so-called “Golden Crescent”—provided the Soviet Union with a devastating new front as its soldiers turned to drugs for the same reasons as many Americans did in Vietnam. Young, freed from the constraints of home, frightened and under psychological duress, they could not afford to buy even cigarettes from their meagre ruble pay packets. To raise enough money for hashish, the “Afgantsy” (as Soviet or Russian war veterans are known) resorted to selling gas, ammunition and AKs, and sometimes even tried to steal their fallen comrades’ guns.
After almost two decades of Western intervention, one trillion dollars spent by Washington on military operations and no end of fighting in sight, Afghanistan could now become a true narco-state, since none of the said operations has succeeded in tackling Central Asia’s illicit opium trade. In the 1980s, when America was determined to deal Moscow its “own Vietnam,” the CIA provided the Mujahideen with an estimated three billion dollars’ worth of arms. Those, together with the ever larger opium harvests, sustained the resistance until the Soviets withdrew after the 40th Army’s decade-long campaign, which officially had left 13,833 of their number dead. (The actual figure is more like 26,000).
The strategy had succeeded because the CIA’s proxy war had not disrupted the way its Afghan allies used drug trafficking to sustain the struggle.
In contrast, the West’s peace-enforcing efforts since the invasion of October 2001 have failed to contain the Taliban insurgency precisely because the surplus heroin trade can no longer be controlled. Afghanistan’s opium production jumped from ca. 180 tonnes in 2001 to more than 3,000 tonnes a year later and to more than 8,000 tonnes in 2007.
In a bitter irony of history, a combination of ecology and military technology has transformed the country into a state where illicit drugs dominate the rural economy and define political choices. They also determine the fate of foreign interventions and are intricately bound up with government corruption. When the mainstay of a country’s economy is illegal, the state’s legitimacy is undermined. (The last few paragraphs are based on Alfred W. McCoy, “How the heroin trade explains the U.S.-U.K. failure in Afghanistan,” in The Guardian, 9 January 2018).