Disinformation from Afghanistan’s Opium war

11:01 am - May 25th 2009

by Martin Robbins    

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Last week, troops in Afghanistan launched a four-day raid on a Taliban strong-hold, during which they seized some drugs. Would you like some more detail? According to the BBC, the raid took place in “Marja” (which is actually in Nigeria); Al-Jazeera believe it happened in “Marija“; AP took a guess at “Marjah“; while only UPI correctly named “Marjeh”, in the Helmand province. 14, 16, 34, or 60 militants were killed in the operation.

If you think that’s bad, when it comes to the record of what was actually seized the ‘facts’ take on a life of their own. The AP report that 16.5 tons of drugs were seized, along with “other materials”. The BBC declare that ninety-two tons of “poppy seeds and other drugs” were seized, and Al-Jazeera continue the game of chinese whispers, changing this to “ninety-two tons of drugs”.

Since when were poppy seeds ‘drugs’? Should I be reporting my local baker to the authorities for his poppy-seed buns?!

The same ‘confusion’ occurred with another drugs seizure in Afghanistan back in February as well, as the Transform Drug Policy Foundation observed. A bewildered Steve Rolles complained that:

Somehow a story about less than a £100,000 worth of raw opium has been transformed into a story about £50,000,000 worth of ‘deadly heroin’.

In that case, not only had virtually every news organisation concocted their own, unique and largely fictitious version of events; but all of those different version conflicted with the initial reports from the MoD. Not only that, but the Defense secretary himself was quoted as referring to: “The seizure of £50 million worth of narcotics,” a description with no basis in the facts released by his own department.

It seems that two things are happening here.

Firstly, we’re seeing good old-fashioned war propaganda, where a minor local success is presented as some sort of great victory. Secondly, newspapers and media outlets are, through a combination of ignorance and a tendency to exaggerate, massively distorting the information that they receive and report.

The result – intentionally or otherwise – is that much of what the public are being told about Afghanistan is quite simply not true. The media have miserably failed to keep the public informed about a “forgotten” war that has now dragged on for nearly eight years.

A war which, incidentally, has had the effect of causing opium production in Afghanistan to rise substantially over the last few years, as TDPF plotted:

Of course, there are many aspects of heroin and opium I could tackle here but won’t for lack of space, particularly the interaction between drug policy in the West and production in Afghanistan; and more general misinformation about Heroin in the media. I’m sure you’ll have a vigorous debate about them in the comments…

But I want to concentrate on the issue of misinformation here because it’s very important. Whatever your position is on Iraq, one of the great crimes inflicted on the British people in the run up to the invasion was the spread of false information through the media. People were duped into supporting a war on the basis of misinformation – and as I’ve often stated, misinformation is the enemy of democracy.

Afghanistan is coming back on the agenda this year, and for all the talk about our troops “coming home” from Iraq, the reality is that many will be moving on to Afghanistan. The war there has not gone well: not only have we failed to secure large areas of Afghanistan, but the fighting and conflict has spilled over to destabilise neighbouring Pakistan. Britain and America will be pouring an increasing number of resources and resources into the region for the forseeable future.

With a general election potentially near, we need to be asking the main parties two questions: do you have a coherent strategy for Afghanistan, and will you give us an open, honest and un-spun picture of the situation on the ground?

And to the journalists and news outlets we still rely on to bring us this information, I have one question: why do you find it so hard to report the truth?

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About the author
This is a guest post. Martin Robbins works in R&D, solving scientific problems for a small software company while finishing off his Ph.D., which covers immune system simulation and complexity. He blogs at Lay Science
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Foreign affairs ,South Asia ,United States ,Westminster

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Reader comments

Excellent post but can somebody, anybody, tell me what on earth our troops are doing there?

As far as I am aware there is no rationale, no strategy and no prospect of winning (even supposing we knew what that would look like). I seem to remember we got involved in support of the Americans who attacked them because Osama Bin Laden once owned a cave there. Oh yes and they grow poppies.

Is that really worth getting our young men blown apart for?

Many years ago I had an interesting conversation with Nick Davies. We were talking about a particular event where the press had picked up on one aspect (which involved sex) but hadn’t followed up on other aspects (which involved money). Nick’s explanation was that the sex aspect was a better “story” (in the press’ definition of the term): it made better headlines, it would attract more readers, it was easier to understand, it involved the journalists in less work and it fitted better into a pre-existing narrative (this being the days of Major’s government and sleaze). It might actually be untrue (and we discussed some cases where politicians seemed to encourage rumours about their sex lives in order to distract attention from their financial dealings): but to the press that was of little importance in whether it was a good story.

A spin-doctor knows how to feed things to the press that are good “stories”, where the journalist can get a substantial amount of copy into print with the minimum of effort. From August 2002 onwards, the UK Government managed to create a narrative that Iraq was a “threat” and having got that momentum going they were able to feed in various stories that re-inforced it. The stories more or less wrote themselves: a picture of Saddam alongside one of Hitler, liberal use of words like “appeasement” and “1938”; it was a journalist’s dream. I followed up on a little story that often appeared in the press at that time, which said that the US was doing things in Turkey and Israel to “strengthen their defences in case of an attack by Iraq”. It wasn’t completely wrong, but was misleading because it was very, very unlikely that Iraq would attack these countries unless it was first itself attacked. However it did develop the momentum of the idea that Iraq was a threat. When I managed to speak to journalists on the papers who printed these stories, they didn’t see it as their job to think about how likely it was that Iraq would attack these countries and couldn’t see what the “story” would be if they accepted that Iraq would be very foolish to attack Turkey or Israel. Stuff like this, or ricin plots, or yellowcake from Niger, makes good “stories”, even if it isn’t true, journalists go for it and spin-doctors know that. In the case of Iraq, the result is a big gap between the public (many of whom thought this was all a bit fanciful and were waiting to see what Hans Blix actually found) and our political elite (who cannot now back down and admit that all of this “convincing” evidence was always very flimsy).

The coalition is stuck in Afghanisatn like Brer Rabbit to the Tar Baby. The War on Drugs is often at cross-purposes with the War on Terror. There is no clear strategy, except that to leave might make things worse. It would be a brave newspaper that used that as its main narrative about Afghanistan. Stories about the success of the military and how the wars on drugs and on terror are the same thing are much easier to write. Stories about MPs and their moats and duckponds area also easier to write than ones that point out how little oversight our MPs practice over the conduct of our foreign affairs.

@1: totally agree with everything you said Pagar. The only reason we’re in Afghanistan is because of America, and the only reason they’re there is because Obama could not have run for election opposing both pointless wars his country was fighting for fear of being painted an anti-war commie etc.

The Taliban are nasty buggers but all this war has done is actually let them get stronger. I don’t see where this is all going and how we intend to get there, wherever that is.

can somebody, anybody, tell me what on earth our troops are doing there?

Stabilising a country that has been fucked up for decades, if not centuries, by establishing and enforcing a means to democracy so the people of Afghanistan can hold their fate in their own hands rather than be victims of Soviet communism, Taliban religious extremism or warlordism. That it is proving costly both in terms of money and lives is merely a reflection of the regions history and the destabilising influence of religion, lack of education, extreme poverty and the ‘war on drugs’. None of this is reason to abandon the people of Afghanistan to those who rule by terror and oppression.

As I pointed out in a previous article by Neil Robertson – I’m also in favour of being in Afghanistan.

The problem is that our attention was diverted to Iraq thanks to misinformation, hidden agendas and lies – but Afghanistan has always been more important.

Allowing the Taliban to effectively rule over Afghanistan would have not only provided a fantastic base for al-Qaeda for future attacks, but also destabilised South Asia. Just before 9/11 these guys were already carrying out attacks on the Indian sub-continent to force a war between India and Pakistan.

In other words, if the Taliban became a powerful force in Afghanistan – sooner or later we would have to intervene because the area was definitely going to get destabilised at some point. With nukes involved.

What is our plan? The UK alone doesn’t have a plan but the United States is now trying to formulate a new plan given Bush’s plans were such a disaster. See here:


For several months, the Obama Administration has been rethinking American policy, hoping to depart from this history of dysfunction. It has announced a formal strategy: an adaptive counterinsurgency doctrine that seeks to emphasize the security and the prosperity of the Afghan and Pakistani people above all; economic and development aid; vigorous diplomacy; and carefully targeted warfare, particularly aimed at Al Qaeda. Already, however, Obama and his advisers have had to confront the puzzle of which policies in their new portfolio will promote stability in the region, and which will promote instability.

That said – this is an excellent article, exposing some pretty lame journalism.

I tend to agree with Gimpy and Sunny on this. I can see good reasons for being in Afghanistan, just as there were good reasons for going into Iraq. The two reasons I didn’t support the Iraq war were a) the dishonesty and propaganda from the governments regarding the case for war (I would have been more likely to support a clear humanitarian mandate), and b) the piss-poor plan, created by people who were demonstrably ignorant of the region, who ignored the advice of academics who predicted years in advance not only what would happen, but how to avoid it.

And that’s basically my concern now in Afghanistan. I support a war that has clear goals and objectives and a realistic strategy for reaching them, but that idea is being undermined by the behaviour of those responsible for getting accurate information back to the public.

8. Fellow Traveller

Allowing the Taliban to effectively rule over Afghanistan would have not only provided a fantastic base for al-Qaeda for future attacks, but also destabilised South Asia. Just before 9/11 these guys were already carrying out attacks on the Indian sub-continent to force a war between India and Pakistan.

Sorry but I heard about the Domino Theory with regard to Vietnam. The USA withdrew in 1975, the Communists took over, they still run the country; South East Asia didn’t turn Red as predicted by those who said the West had to draw a line in the sand at the 17th parallel and defend it to the last man; no one writes anything about the place today. I mean, think about it, when did you last hear any news about Vietnam? It has become a forgotten country, a backwater but for 30 years it got presented as a strategic centre – if it fell, the whole of the Free World would go down the drain.

We had the same advocacy – the USA had to turn the Republic of South Vietnam into a model democracy, educate ignorant peasants, cloth them, provide health care, win hearts and minds; all the same crap we hear today concerning Afghanistan. That policy would’ve undermined support for the Viet Cong but it didn’t sit well with the local Vietnamese ruling class whom the USA backed. They didn’t want the peasants educated and with shoes on their feet. So they did everything to discourage development projects in the countryside.

The same situation looms in Afghanistan – the men who run the country as the West’s allies don’t want the poor and illiterate common people raised up – it will challenge their rule. They want them held down.

Since development runs into this opposition from the West’s own local allies it can only resort – as it did in Vietnam – to using more firepower as a counter to the insurgents – primarily aerial bombing. They turned millions of square miles of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia into a moonscape of craters, killing millions and it still didn’t defeat the enemy. Plus, the civilian deaths turn the locals against the foreigners killing them and to the protection of the insurgents.

The nuclear weapons angle doesn’t sound like a new threat either. Remember the Cuban Revolution 50 years ago in 1959 and the subsequent installation of Soviet nuclear missiles, the perceived threat to the USA, the crisis that brought the world to the brink of global apocalypse?

You sound a lot like an American government anti-communist hawk saying that if Cuba gets left to its own devices (in other words, if we don’t overthrow Castro) we’ll have him pointing nuclear missiles at us for years to come and Cuban soldiers storming ashore at Miami Beach. Hence the Bay of Pigs.

It didn’t happen that way either. A diplomatic solution was found.

I totally agree with Fellow Traveller. Anybody with a few years behind them has heard all this before. Remember the American panic when the Berlin Wall came down? They sent troops and arms into Colombia, botched the job and then made themselves look silly. Their/our intervention in the Balkans helping the ex-Yugoslavs to tear themselves to pieces was another disaster. And then Osama Bin Laden gifted them something “serious” to get involved with. So what did they/we do? Blundered into Iraq to take on a clearly inept leader, Saddam, and displayed him to the world in the most gotesque and botched public hanging ever seen! And I thought they were supposed to be good at making cowboy films!! Oh, and when their inept handling of Iraq became too embarassing we/they remembered that something was still going on in Afghanistan. Sadly, a relatively competent “enemy” like the Soviet Union is rather hard to come by and no end of Irans or North Koreas will compensate for that fact. The only credible candidate is China but we seem to like their style in how they exploit people for profits and so barring some unforseen conflict of interest a warm/cold/hot war with China seems unlikely for the time being although not impossible.In old Cold War parlance China appears to have a greater number of people and so they are advantaged in their likelihood to survive a modern war and so the “school bully” has to look around for safer victims.

10. Shatterface

I tend to agree with Sunny’s comments 5 & 6.

Unlike Saddam, the Taliban pose a real danger to the rest of the world and the conspiracy theories about invading just to build pipelines accross the country don’t bare scrutiny; unfortunately we squandered both military resources and international support by invading Iraq as well.

Also, this seams more like the media sexing the drug-hauls up since the MoD’s estimates are lower than in the press.

The nuclear weapons angle doesn’t sound like a new threat either. Remember the Cuban Revolution 50 years ago in 1959 and the subsequent installation of Soviet nuclear missiles, the perceived threat to the USA, the crisis that brought the world to the brink of global apocalypse?

You sound a lot like an American government anti-communist hawk saying that if Cuba gets left to its own devices (in other words, if we don’t overthrow Castro) we’ll have him pointing nuclear missiles at us for years to come and Cuban soldiers storming ashore at Miami Beach. Hence the Bay of Pigs.

It didn’t happen that way either. A diplomatic solution was found.

Colossally misinformed, the world quite literally nearly ended (literally gets used a lot, but in this case it is totally appropriate) in those 6 days. We cannot afford for a Nuclear Pakistan to fail.

Whether staying in Afghanistan is the best way to achieve this is one debate. Whether it’s appropriate to discuss Pakistan in terms of a “failed/failed/failing” state is useful is another. Whether terrorists of one for shade or another could get a nuclear device is yet another debate.

However, to pretend that Nuclear weapons are a distraction, or solely a neocolonial decoy is recockulous.

Sorry but I heard about the Domino Theory with regard to Vietnam.

I’m staggered that someone is actually making a comparison with Vietnam. Those were nationalist communists. The Taliban are a completely different breed.

Even a cursory look at what’s going on in Pakistan now – with the Taliban increasingly trying to take over parts of Pakistan and establish their own rule – points to their expansionist tendencies.

And there is plenty of evidence to show they were planning to destabilise the whole of South Asia – not least of all their own statements that they intended to target India next because they hate India’s ownership of (a part of) Kashmir. And other grievances of course.

Just because someone raised similar scare-mongering theories in the past doesn’t mean it can never happen.

13. Fellow Traveller

Sorry Mr Hundal but the NVA had more of an army, air force and navy than the Taliban (for that matter so did the recently destroyed LTTE). Supposedly they were just nationalists. At the time the USA told everyone they were international communists who wanted to see world revolution and that they would bring it about. Obviously the USA must have lied back then but you, for some reason, seem to believe what they tell you about the Taliban today. They don’t threaten the world. What do you expect them to do? Invade someplace? With what? How many tank divisions and fleets do they possess? How many squadrons of jets? They’re a guerrilla army, operating an irregular formation and lightly armed. It doesn’t matter what they say they would like to do – I can declare myself world emperor if I want. Do I have the means, the power to do it? No.

My point in referencing the Cuban Missile Crisis lay in the resolution which came about via diplomacy between the USA and USSR not by invading and occupying Cuba. Cuba also had a nuclear superpower backing it. The Taliban don’t.

BTW: even if the Taliban could overthrow the Pakistani state (which they can’t) and got their hands on the nuclear warheads – they wouldn’t be able to use them without the arming codes. They won’t detonate without them. They could always throw them at someone I suppose.

As for the movement of the Taliban into Pakistan – the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan has naturally driven them over the border. The USA forces them out of one country into another and you accuse them of empire building. I recall, going back to Vietnam, that the USA expanded its military operations into Laos and Cambodia on the basis of a similar movement of the NVA into those border regions.

Sections of the Pakistani army support the Taliban, they see Afghanistan as “strategic depth” (i think that’s the term used) in case of a war with India. Its incredibly unlikely that they will get Nuclear Weapons, or that they will ever get the chance to use them. But it is likely enough to believe it’s worth taking action against.

They are a guerilla army and that is precisely why they’ve been so successful. They staged an attack in Lahore on the Sri Lankan Cricket team. That’s pretty impressive. South Asia is already pretty destabilised and it wouldn’t take much to tip it over the edge.

They are going to have to deal with Bangladeshi flooding as Climate Changes ravages the sub-continent, Nepal’s Government possible imploding, Pakistan’s dreadful governance continuing and some legislation that could have legalised rape.

We’re getting a tad distracted from the post and propaganda so I’ll just end on this link from Ben Goldacre which covers similar ground.

15. Carl Olsen

I agree with your premise that the reporting of this story,like virtually all war reporting, is somewhat overblown for propaganda purposes–it was ever thus! One correction, though. Opium poppy seed “tea” is consumed for its narcotic effect, which can vary from mild to strong enough to kill. See, for instance:


So the BBC was correct to refer to poppy seeds as a drug.

16. robina creaser

Really excellent article, thank you. I liked the information about the drug-find beat-ups particularly and I think that the role of the media in justifying and romanticising these idiotic wars is a major reason they can happen. We are exposed to more US media over here and the whole Fox news disinformation system is a worry.
I have been following the story about David Barstow – NYT journalist, who won the Pulitzer Prize last year. He wrote an investigative piece about the link between retired senior military figures who were employed by Fox news and other major media to give independent views about Iraq, both before and during the war. All well and good, but they were also employed by and briefed by the Pentagon, to give a pro-war perspective Not so good, but they were also shareholders in private security companies who have made, and continue to make, huge profits from Iraq. Very similar to Cheney and his connection to Halliburton oil, which is printing money in Iraq. The story really though is the fact that non of the major media in the US have covered either the Pulitzer prize win, or the details of Barstows investigations ! Extraordinary.

One other point worth raising about Afghanistan, I think, is that everyone talks about `the Taliban` as if there was just one, unified organisation causing chaos. My reading suggests that there are a number of organisations and individuals committing violent acts in Afghanistan – some against the US-led coalition, many targetting the terminally corrupt and oppressive Afghani government and some incidents are inter-clan or inter-family affairs.
The Taliban in Pakistan is a separate organisation to that in Afghanistan despite their common cultural roots. Many of those fighting for Taliban or other violent groups are simply local farmers who need to earn some money – normal commerce and farming having ground to a halt in many places. There is no convenient identifiable enemy in Afghanistan and apart from the Karzai government, which is making good money, the one thing the fighters agree on is that they do not want western armies in their country (again).

17. Shatterface

(14): Yes, a very good article from Ben Goldacre (as usual) and a lot of intelligent comments which follow it.

12. Sunny good point. Generals fight the last war and often so do critics. What do the majority of the Afghans want? Article by Rory Stewart in Prospect is worth reading; he says Afghans want the forces in the country to help rebuild it but the methods used have to change.

I am no fan of religious fundamentalism and the Taliban make my skin crawl but are we saying that we should weigh in militarily against everyone that we disapprove of?

I hope not.

The Afghans are generally a disparate and disorganised people who only ever come together when their nation is attacked. They saw off Alexander the Great in 335BC and have been seeing off all comers ever since- most recently the USSR at its most powerful. (I seem to remember we armed the Taliban then).

As i said above, we have attacked them not only without a strategy but without any clear aim or objective and that is yet another reason why this is a war we cannot win. The Government should stop meddling in other peoples affairs at the expense of the blood of our brave soldiers. Period.

“abandon the people of Afghanistan”

It’s funny, but almost every interview or book I’ve read* on the subject has the good people of Afghanistan mentioning how they’d quite like all the foreigners to do one, and sharpish, from their country. They explain that they don’t want aid, they don’t want things to change, they just want everyone to leave them the **** alone.

But no, we know best. As we always seem to…

*This is a good place to start: http://www.rorystewartbooks.com/places_in_between_excerpt.htm

Sunny Hundal: ‘As I pointed out in a previous article by Neil Robertson – I’m also in favour of being in Afghanistan.’

It’s rather shameful, then, that when someone like Claude Carpentieri delivers a lengthy and stupid rant about how it’s okay to insult all soldiers- not those guilty of acts like the beating of prisoners, but simply all those who serve in the military- as war criminals and baby killers, you couldn’t find the courage to criticise him, but instead defended his rubbish.

‘Thanks for risking your life in Afghanistan for us, Mr Squaddie, now listen while I call you a criminal.’ Cheers, mate.

Marjeh/Marjah is not the killer point that Martin seems to think, btw: they’re both transliterations, and the name of the town in Helmand is pronounced more like Marjah than Marjeh.

23. generalchaos

It’s really quite simple. The UK govt. (UK plc.) has a vested interest in causing as much instability in the region as possible. They want to flood Iran with opium and destabilize the Ayatollah by inciting a people’s revolt.
They also want as much general chaos in Pakistan as possible because Britain is much more firmly on the side of India than Pakistan and if a nuclear conflict starts on the subcontinent we will be India’s allyl, not Pakistan’s and not Iran’s.
The idea is to put Iran in a position where the people are in a position of having no choice but to support popular revolt, and install a regime which is friendly to the west, thereby depriving Russia and China of Geo-strategic dominance of the Oil fields which prop up European imperialism, the British Empire, Israeli military dominance and crucially the United States.

The British approach is simply to cause as much trouble as possible, and then, when the situation gets out of control, have Israel or India have a nuclear war with Iran and Pakistan.

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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Disinformation from Afghanistan’s Opium war http://bit.ly/2lFFiH

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