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A long road from Baghdad: Iraqi refugees and Special Immigrant Visa holders in the U.S.

Muhammad Hassoon never heard the crack of the rifle.

The force of the bullet that grazed his scalp four years ago knocked him out cold as he was leaving the gift shop he worked at on Forward Operating Base Falcon in Baghdad, Iraq. His attackers left him for dead – one less collaborator with the Americans. When he came to, Hassoon knew he had to flee the country.

“I didn’t have a choice,” said Hassoon, who is the sole provider for his mother, sister and two younger brothers. “I couldn’t stay in Iraq because they’d kill me, and my family needed the money.”

In June 2011, after the attack, Hassoon was able to find asylum at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, where he lived and worked doing laundry for Americans.

He applied for a Special Immigrant Visa, a U.S. government program designed to fast-track Iraqis for repatriation to the U.S. beyond regular refugee quotas allotted to the region. These are Iraqis who had worked for Americans in the country and whose lives were endangered because of this.

The program has brought 13,000 Iraqis like Hassoon to the U.S. since it was initiated in 2008, according to the Department of State. Of these, over three thousand – or 23 percent – have gone to Texas, more than any other state.

The SIV program was slated to end in 2013, but when it became clear that thousands of qualified Iraqis remained, it was extended under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014.

The NDAA made a special allotment to bring 2,500 additional Iraqis to the U.S. To date, approximately 1,500 SIVs have been issued, and less than currently 1,000 remain.

Hassoon waited for over a year, and was finally notified in July 2012 that his SIV had been approved. Within a week, the American government had put him on an airplane and flew him alone to Fort Worth, Texas.
“I arrived here with nothing, spoke really bad English, and didn’t know where to begin,” Hassoon said.

via chartsbin.com

Like Hassoon, Samah Azeez and her family arrived in the U.S. from Iraq with only their immediate luggage.

Her father died in 2006, when she was 17 years old, leaving her mother to provide for Azeez, her four sisters and two young brothers in the heart of the sectarian violence tearing Baghdad apart at the time.

When the Jaysh al-Mehdi began threatening them – her father had been a project engineer for the new Iraqi government – her mother fled with them to Syria and applied for refugee status to the U.S.

After a year and a half of living in what Azeez modestly described as “economically tough” conditions, their visas were approved and the U.S. flew them to Chicago.

Separate from the SIV program, the U.S. government maintains a region-based quota system to admit refugees such as Azeez and her family to America.

121,321 Iraqi refugees have fled Iraq to the United States since 2007, according to the State Department. Almost half of these – 45 percent – have been relocated to California, Michigan and Texas. California alone has received over 20 percent, or 25,391 refugees.

Despite her siblings’ impeccable academic and professional qualifications, they found even minimum wage employment difficult to come by. American universities would not recognize their academic credentials, and prospective employers were too wary.

“It was a shock: you expected something different, completely opposite,” Azeez said. “The U.S. is supposed to be the land of opportunity, but the only kind of jobs we could get were cleaning offices.”

For many Iraqi refugees, coming to the U.S. has meant a new struggle to survive: poverty, lack of employment and language barriers prove for many to be almost insurmountable barriers.

According to a 2010 Georgetown University Law Center study, these Iraqi refugees are “not faring well” in the U.S.

“Most are not securing sustainable employment, and many are not able to support themselves or their families on the public assistance they are receiving. Some have become homeless,” according to the report.

Furthermore, Iraqi refugees arrive in the U.S. already deeply indebted to the government.

Under the terms of the inter-agency United States Refugee Admissions Program, which administers resettling of refugees, new arrivals must repay the U.S. government for the cost of their airfare to the U.S. This interest-free loan is recouped from garnished wages once a refugee finds employment.

In the case of large families, this can run several thousand dollars.

USRAP contracts with non-profit organizations across the country to provide initial resettlement services to newly arrived refugees, including apartment rentals, English-language classes and job training.

Through USRAP, the State Department provides resettlement agencies up to $1,800 per person each month for up to 90 days for basic housing, food and essential services.

For Hassoon, this aid was critical. It allowed him a stable beginning in the U.S., and the chance to develop his basic-level English.

“The government gave me $1,700 and got me an apartment,” Hassoon said. “The first year was really, really hard; I don’t know how I would have made it without it.”

Once this public support begins to fade, however, it becomes increasingly likely that Iraqi refugees will slip through the cracks, making support to this vulnerable population difficult.

“It’s often the case that, as refugees seek to integrate in their community, they relocate to a secondary residence to be closer to fellow refugees and ease linguistic difficulties,” said Jamie Diatta, a Department of Homeland Security Special Assistant who deals with refugee issues.

“This ‘second-tier’ migration makes keeping local refugee statistics difficult within metropolitan areas,” Diatta said.

Azeez considers herself lucky to be thousands of miles away from the current strife in Iraq.

Hardly had the U.S. withdrawn combat units from Iraq, the battle against the Islamic State tore through the fabric of the country, perhaps irrevocably.

According to the UNHCR, there were 88,991 registered Iraqi refugees in the region as of February 2014. The actual number is actually much higher: there is no internationally agreed-upon number of Iraqi refugees or Internally Displaced Persons, as it is impossible to accurately count them.

The Iraqi government’s Ministry of Migration and Displacement estimates an additional 440,000 Iraqis have fled their homes since January 2014 due to the conflict with the Islamic State.

Upon her family’s arrival, the scarcity of decent jobs for her and her siblings meant they constantly struggled to make ends meet.

“The first year here was the hardest because we didn’t speak any English,” Azeez said. “We learned English in school in Iraq, but it wasn’t enough.”

Although she missed several years of schooling in Iraq and Syria, Azeez was able to enroll in a year-long English program at Truman Community College in Chicago. She worked diligently to learn her adopted language, even while laboring in minimum-wage jobs.

With her improved language skills, she was able to find a well-paying job translating Arabic for school children in Hyde Park, and was soon able to help improve her family’s finances.

“It took two to three years for things to get better,” Azeez said. “It was a completely new life.”

Now in his third year in the U.S., Hassoon is also beginning to feel like he’s finally made it.

Starting out as a dishwasher in a local restaurant, he’s worked his way up service industry jobs to become a mall security guard, a position which pays well and offers decent hours.

Hassoon is now regularly able to wire money back to his mother in Iraq, and is helping his brother negotiate the lengthy visa process to hopefully join him.

“This is the U.S.,” Hassoon said. “You have to take it day by day; it’s the only way.”

For both Hassoon and Azeez, the last several years have consisted of constant change and an on-going struggle to improve themselves and the well-being of their families.

Azeez has returned to school, and is now a senior studying biology at Roosevelt University in Chicago. She’s preparing to take the MCAT, and intends to go to medical school. Her dream: to become an orthopedic surgeon.

“This is my passion,” she said. “I really want to make this happen.”

Hassoon is talking with U.S. Army recruiters, and wants to join the Army.

Although he couldn’t understand most of what the American soldiers were saying when he was at FOB Falcon in Baghdad, he loved working with them. More than anything, he wants to join their ranks.

“America’s done so much for me,” Hasson said. “I just want to do something for them back.”

How far will the U.S. go to fuel the war in Afghanistan?

WASHINGTON – Some of the characters are new, but the scene in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan is one of déjà vu. This past April’s riots were the second time in five years that the United States was left in the uncomfortable position of watching as a president of the small Central Asian country was ousted amidst allegations that U.S. fuel contracts supplying a major logistical hub for the war in Afghanistan were funneling millions of dollars to Kyrgyzstan’s presidential family.

Even before the most recent overthrow, the House National Security Subcommittee was looking into contracts in the region, which is renowned for its corruption. Now, the subcommittee has undertaken a full-fledged investigation, focused on the contracts at Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan, while the Department of Defense moves to open up bidding on the suspect contracts.

“Let’s be honest: At many times throughout our history, the United States has closely dealt with unsavory regimes in order to achieve more pressing policy or strategic objectives,” Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., said in his opening remarks at the investigation’s first hearing in April. “The United States will have to work hard to restore our credibility in (the Kyrgyz’­) eyes, beginning with transparency regarding U.S. fuel contracts at Manas.”

The F.B.I. collaborated with the Kyrgyz government on an investigation in 2005, when accusations that the son of then-president Askar Akayev was improperly benefiting from U.S. fuel contracts. That FBI report was never made public, but an independent investigator for the Kyrgyz told The New York Timesthat he suspected the new president, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, simply took over the same business model, installing his son, Maksim Bakiyev, as the beneficiary.

Now, the anti-corruption interim government led by Roza Otunbayeva is opening its own investigation, focused on six subcontractors allegedly controlled by Maksim Bakiyev.

“Whatever the Pentagon’s policy of buying warlords in Afghanistan, the state of Kyrgyzstan demands more respect,” Edil Baisalov, chief of staff for the interim lead, told ­The Times in April. “The government of Kyrgyzstan will not be bought and sold. We are above that.”

The closely linked companies at the center of the allegations are Red Star and Mina Corp., which provide enormous amounts of Russian jet fuel to power U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Together, the companies have received more than $1 billion for fuel sales over the past six years.

The fact that companies’ director of operations, Charles “Chuck” Squires, is a retired Army lieutenant colonel and former defense attaché to the U.S. embassy in Bishkek raises some eyebrows. Except in the case where a presidential directive makes an exemption for national security concerns, military contracts are subject to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the law that outlaws bribery in U.S. business transactions overseas.

“If this were a commercial setting, an investigator would probably start by studying whether there really is an arm’s-length relationship between Red Star and Pentagon contractors,” Scott Horton, an expert on accountability in military contracts, said in his written testimony to the House committee. “If not, an investigator might quickly conclude that it is a shell interposed to provide a buffer between the procurement officers and companies controlled by the president’s family.”

The hearing witnesses consistently hit the refrain that the U.S. embassy delegation was unnecessarily close with the Bakiyev regime. The essential question is whether this was a State Department blunder, or if it was part of a larger policy of currying favor with the regime to ensure the future of the Manas air base.

In February 2009, in what was widely seen as a quid pro quo, Bakiyev announced plans to close the Manas base on the same day that Russian President Putin announced $2.15 billion in aid to the country. Later, Bakiyev flipped when the U.S. agreed to pay $17 million more in annual rent for the base.

Earlier this month, the Department of Defense moved to open up bidding on the contracts to the Manas base. Meanwhile, the United States and Kyrgyzstan have been in intense negotiations over taxes on fuel being imported to the base.

In impoverished Kyrgyzstan, the U.S. air base and its connected contracts make an easy whipping boy for disgruntled citizens whose country was ranked 128 out of 149 for corruption by World Audit in 2009.

But in business environments like that of Kyrgyzstan, it may well be that only countries connected to political elite will be in a position to meet U.S. needs.

“Allegations like these are an inevitable by-product of working in this part of the world, where corruption is just the way business is done,” said Martha Brill Olcott, an expert on the region for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The question is, were these contracts illegal, or were they simply unethical? There are only a few places you can get oil from – you’ve got to have a refinery – and it’s predictable that the bigger companies, the ones with elite connections, are going to be the ones that can get the best deal for the U.S. government.”

Has the U.S. got its eye on the right ball in Kyrgyzstan?

WASHINGTON – When opposition forces toppled Kyrgyzstan’s government in April, many Americans would have been hard-pressed to find the country on a map, despite the fact it’s home to an American air base that provides a key supply line to troops in Afghanistan.

Simply looking at a map would tell you how disjointed U.S. policy in the region is, says Paul Goble, an expert on Eurasian issues who has served in various capacities in the Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. State Department. Although U.S. efforts have remained fixated on Russian influence in the former-Soviet region, the country does not in fact share a border with Russia – but it does with China.

“There is a very large geopolitical switch going on that Americans are not ready for,” Goble said. “China is simply going to be the biggest player in the region. Russia doesn’t have the leverage it once did.”

With its booming population and industry hungry for raw materials, China is roaming the world in search of energy supplies and minerals. In its backyard of Central Asia, it is investing billions in infrastructure including pipelines, railroads and highways.  Earlier this year the first segment of an oil pipeline stretching from Turkmenistan to China opened up. The project signifies what many experts say is a shift in the region’s petroleum resources away from Russia and toward China.

“Economic interests are the Chinese entryway into Central Asia and Eurasia,” said China expert Russell Hsiao of the Jamestown Foundation. “Kyrgyzstan is a pretty crucial piece in the whole of the puzzle.”

In the near-term, most analysts agree that Russia poses the greatest threat to America’s primary interest in the region – the Manas Air Base, which provides a critical link in the supply chain to U.S. operations in Afghanistan. Last year, the now-deposed president Kurmanbek Bakiyev agreed to end the U.S. contract for the air base after receiving a promise for more than $2 billion in aid from Russia. Bakiyev later reversed, after receiving the initial installment of Russian aid, when the U.S. agreed to pay more than three times the original rent for the base. Now, there is wide speculation that Russia supported the revolution that deposed Bakiyev in early April.

But, while a heavy-handed media blitz tends to accompany Russia’s tactics, Chinese policies are subtler. The flood of top provincial party leaders that travelled to the bordering Chinese province of Xinjiang in the days after the revolution, and the reported financial support China has lent the provisional government, underscore the Chinese leadership’s vested interest in the country.

In addition to being a hinge in China’s plan for expansion into Central Asia and Eastern Europe, Beijing fears that Kyrgyzstan raises the specter of unrest on its borders. Their particular concern is that the unrest could spread to the Muslim Uighur population, which makes up more than half of Xinjiang province, and which has members in Kyrgyzstan.

Chinese economic interests and the country’s desire for stability in the region do not directly conflict with U.S. goals in Kyrgyzstan. Satiating the Chinese appetite for oil with resources in Central Asia, in fact, could prevent the country from undertaking measures that conflict more directly with U.S. interests. Analysts warn, though, that Chinese economic policy lacks the ideological prerequisites that the West has come to expect.

“They’re willing to bribe, they’re not concerned about human rights violations, their businesses can deal with corrupt practices that our businesses can’t,” Goble said.

And while Chinese leadership is not directly threatened by the revolution, some authoritarian leaders in the region such as Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan and Nursultan Nazarayev of Kazakhstan – with whom China has vested economic relationships – are.

“If they’re able to hold free and fair elections, which has never happened in this region before, then it’s going to be a huge threat to some countries in this region,” said Erica Marat, a Eurasia expert. “None of them want Kyrgyzstan to become a good example.”

As the U.S. navigates relations with the provisional Kyrgyz government – a task made more difficult by allegations that the American military knowingly purchased corrupt fuel contracts that benefited the deposed leader’s family – regional experts warn that policy makers should keep an eye on the East as well as the West.

Yemen's water: a different national security threat

WASHINGTON–After a Yemen-based branch of al Qaeda claimed it was behind the foiled terrorist attack on Christmas day late last year, the country on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula has garnered national attention.
Described as a ticking time bomb for extremism, Yemen has captured public attention as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s primary new breeding ground —  a chronic politically unstable state ripe for AQAP’s exploitation. More than 100 Yemenis have been incarcerated in Guantanamo since 2002 and several hundred al Qaeda affiliated militants are said to operate in the country.
Yet for many Yemenis, the pervasive al Qaeda threat is eclipsed by more impending crises, including an increasingly violent secessionist movement in the south and a civil war in the north. In addition to civil unrest, the poorest nation  in the region – and one of the poorest in the world – faces yet another catastrophe whose numbers portend a far deadlier long-term challenge.
Yemen’s population of 23 million, nearly half of whom are under the age of 15, is expected to double by 2035.
And experts claim the capital city, Sana’a, could become the world’s first capital city to run dry, raising concerns that a World Heritage City could devolve into a mere ghost town.
Yemen’s oil accounts for approximately 85% of the government’s revenue. Profit is used to subsidize expensive diesel pumps to extract water, but analysts predict that its petroleum output, already down from 460,000 barrels a day in 2002 to 300-350,000 in 2007, will fall to 0 in 2017.
“Everyone — the Yemeni people, the American government — are sitting around waiting for the crisis to vanish,” said Mohammed Albasha, press and public relations officer at the Embassy of Yemen in Washington. “They’re just talking about it and no one is giving solutions.”
Greg Johnsen, Princeton University expert on Yemen, argues that solutions have been offered – they’re just detrimental.
“Counterterrorism is the only tool the administration is availing themselves with to deal with Yemen and that is a catastrophic mistake,” said Johnsen.
Will Rogers, research assistant at the Center for a New American Security think tank, says the development community must work with locals to break the cycle and bolster the government’s legitimacy.
“You can throw money at the problem but if u don’t have a sustainable plan, you won’t see improvement,” he said.
As water becomes more scarce, the government is increasingly unable to maintain control and legitimacy over tribal governments. Pockets of ungoverned spaces present opportunities for al Qaeda to exploit economic and political challenges.
If the overarching goal is to make Yemen a more stable state, then the first and most basic task is to develop sustainable water projects. But that has become increasingly difficult.
According to a February 2009 report by Integrated Regional Information Network, eighty percent of rural water projects funded by World Bank and Yemen government programs had been seized by tribesmen near or upon completion.
“The effective implementation of programs is hampered by Yemen’s limited institutional capacity,” said Xavier Devictor, World Bank Country Program Coordinator for Egypt, Yemen, and Djibouti. “And actions are likely to require social change, which may take time to materialize.”
Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affair Maria Otero recently traveled to the Middle East in a trip that was said to underscore the need to elevate America’s diplomatic efforts surrounding water.
“Yemen is perhaps the most extreme example of the problems in the region,” said Carl Schonander, primary policy person for the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs under Otero.
But Yemen wasn’t a stop on the department’s tour.
“The trip was planned far in advanced and we didn’t make it to Yemen,” he said, “but the consciousness of the issues should no doubt be raised more.”
Many are counting on it. But as the Yemeni proverb goes, from a pound of talk, an ounce of understanding.
“The next big war in the Middle East wont be over oil, but water,” said Albasha.
“It’s the main source for life,” he said, “and will be the next big ugly battle.”

Amidst problems, US expected to rank well in human trafficking report

WASHINGTON–For the first time, the United States will include itself in the State Department’s Annual Human Trafficking report, to be released in June.

Though the department has been tight-lipped about the report’s contents, contributors anticipate the first U.S. ranking will be favorable. But some say such good news would reflect a bias in this notoriously political document.

“From what I’ve seen, we should be on the watch list,” said Nathan Wilson, CEO of Project Meridian Foundation, an organization that trains officials in how to deal with human trafficking.  “I’m not expecting the annual report to reflect the true situation.­” ­

The annual report has been around since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, a result of then First Lady Hillary Clinton shining a light onto the global issue during  the 1990s, when the transnational crime is believed to have grown exponentially.

Trafficked humans often start their journeys in a consensual arrangement where they pay to get smuggled into the United States, but often end up working for years in jobs where they are exploited or even beaten,  imprisoned and sexually abused.

The State Department has ranked a growing number of countries ­in their efforts to prevent and address human trafficking. Information in the report comes from law enforcement officials, non-governmental organizations and state and local governments. The report then categorizes 175 countries into tiers.

  • Tier 1 countries meet the minimum requirements outlined in the TVPA.
  • Tier 2, generally the largest category, includes countries making some effort to combat human trafficking, but are not meeting all TVPA requirements.
  • Tier 2 Watch List countries have major trafficking problems or have had a recent backslide on prevention efforts.
  • Tier 3 countries have a long way to go in their efforts to combat human trafficking.

Thousands – conservatively estimated at 14,500 to 17,500 – of foreigners are trafficked into the United States every year. Yet, up until this point, the global report has addressed the problem in the U.S. by attaching the Department of Justice’s report as an addendum. The U.S. was left out of the ranking system, thus making a direct and similar comparison to other countries impossible.

Labor Trafficking:

Conjuring notions of a foreign land, sex and children, experts agree that human trafficking remains generally misunderstood in the U.S. Half of human trafficking cases do not explicitly involve sex, and many people assume that because the U.S. has robust law enforcement and social services available, victims will have a way out, Austin said.

“It’s psychological,” she said, explaining that many victims feel helpless and unable to break free of captivity even if they are not physically forced to stay. “People may have options, but they don’t think they do.”

Two recent cases presented at the Department of Justice’s 2010 National Conference on Human Trafficking demonstrated the nature of the half of U.S. trafficking cases that fall in the labor category.

They’re as ubiquitous ­ as hotel cleaning and nannying, and as American as South Dakota and Texas.

U.S. v. Farrell and U.S. v. Nanji both cast U.S. trafficking as a modern form of forced labor thrust upon unsuspecting people and perpetuated by ignorance of rights and mounting fabricated debt, experts explained.

Human trafficking in the U.S. is less about the stereotype of duping and kidnapping and more about coercion, said Ambassador Luis CdeBaca of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons in his opening remarks at the conference.

In the Farrell’s case, a husband and wife operated a South Dakota Comfort Inn behind what Michael Frank, trial attorney for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division Criminal Section, called a “cloak of legitimacy.” Frank described a situation that looked fine on the surface – a large corporation where the defendants called Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents asking the workers to be removed.

But beneath the surface of happy employees and copies of paychecks. officials found a sordid operation where Filipino workers felt so entrapped by false debt that they returned to their payless jobs even after leaving the country.

“They feared for their lives,” Frank said.

But after the recent trial and sentencing, the trafficking victims are living happily in the U.S.,  Frank said, and Mr. and Mrs. Farrell are serving sentences of 5 and 3 years.

Unlike the case against the Farrells, only one Nigerian woman was involved in U.S. v. Nanji. Trial attorney Susan French’s defendant was a Nigerian mother held captive by a Texa_s couple who forced her to care for their children for eight years, seven days a week, sending what totaled around $300 back home to Nigeria.

The defendant put up with the children sleeping in her room, separation from her own children and rape, but eventually forced sodomy was too much for her, French said.

The Nanji­s were found guilty on all accounts and are awaiting sentencing.

From a public health and human rights standpoint, this is a national security issue, CdeBaca said.

Experts expect that ranking U.S. efforts to prevent and deal with cases such as these will legitimize the issue of trafficking in the U.S. and expose the weaknesses in the system.

“It is significant that United States is including itself in the ranking. Other people might say it’s just a gesture or symbolic, but it shows we are willing to look at ourselves critically – showing others that we are holding ourselves to the same standards,” Andrea Austin, spokeswoman for Polaris Project said.

From eradication to assent: U.S. policy on opium crops

WASHINGTON–In the transition to the Obama Administration from the Bush Administration, freshly appointed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed Richard Holbrooke as the Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan. With that move, U.S. global counternarcotics policy – regarding Afghan poppy farming in particular – took a sharp turn. Troops stemmed the practice of destroying poppy crops, concentrating on education, giving farmers alternatives and targeting drug traffickers, among other non-forcible eradication practices.

This recent video shows just how far that policy has set in, with U.S. soldiers not only permitting poppy farming but essentially helping Afghan farmers grow the crop.

Although some soldiers and Afghans see progress in various areas, many criticize the tacit support of poppy growing, according to a report on the counter-narcotics effort from the inspector general for the State Department.

The concern is that poppies used for the opium trade wind up supporting terrorism. They provide much of the funding for the Taliban, according to estimates by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

The U.S. policy now hopes to prevent that by focusing only on drug traffickers, so as not to affect farmers for whom poppies are their sole livelihood.

Tom Schweich, the U.S. ambassador for counter-narcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan from 2007-08, debates the effectiveness of any policy that fosters poppy growing and does not include at least some amount of eradication.

“That’s like getting rid of a tree by cutting the branches instead of the roots,” Schweich said. The policy adopted by Holbrooke is more politically based than attending to actual situation, according to Schweich, who helped shape policy that included eradication under the Bush Administration. He says there has to be a policy that’ attacks the problem at all levels: cultivation, the process of turning it into heroin, the chemists, traffickers, and people protecting traffickers.

Holbrooke’s office did not respond to questions about the effectiveness of their policy, or the State Department OIG’s criticism by press time.

Tom Gregg, a fellow on the Afghanistan regional project at the Center on International Cooperation, said that moving away from eradication is acknowledging the complexity of the issue. The CIC is part of New York University, where Holbrooke’s senior advisor Barnett Rubin is a director of studies and senior fellow on Afghanistan.

“Fundamentally it’s not as dreadful as an eradication policy,” Gregg said.

The source of drug trafficking and its connection to terrorism dates back to the late 1970s after the collapse of the Afghan state during the Soviet-influenced communist coup. Afghan political-military leaders allied with businessmen engaged across many trades including arms dealing and drugs. Businessmen depended on the strongmen, presumably like the Taliban, and then in exchange gave them money.

The UNODC said that the Taliban and “other anti-government forces” made $50 million to $70 million by charging farmers something like at 10 percent fee on their crops. Also, levies imposed on opium processing and trafficking may have raised an additional $200-$400 million. In addition to revenue, drug traffickers provide insurgents material support, including vehicles, weapons, and shelter.

It’s not so easy to go back now, however. The World Bank’s Department for International Intelligence describes the nuances of trying to reverse the proliferation of poppy farming amid the continuing/escalating turbulence. Security incidents in Afghanistan have increased every year since 2003, and in 2009 there was another sharp rise in security incidents.

Meanwhile, some farmers have lost the skills to live off of crops – raisins (See DII report pg. 15) are just one example – and therefore the comparative advantage has gone down. Consequently, switching a farmer back to such benign crops becomes a chore.

So too is it difficult to pin down the demographic that is impacted by eradication. Rubin and others in the Holbrooke camp underscore the dire economic situation for those who would lose their incomes and the anti-American sentiment eradication creates, thus fueling insurgency. Schweich says that it is in part misleading, as farmers who grow poppies don’t do so out of need.

“It’s not poverty that is driving this, it’s greed in most cases,” he said.

A 2008 UNODC report does say that poverty is not a driving factor in creating an opium boom; rather it is more a combination of under-resourced governments and ongoing insurgencies. Data from the NODC shows that poppy growing in Afghanistan exploded after 9/11 to its record high of 193,000 hectares in 2007, before beginning to decline again.

Now the poppy harvest is decreasing for the third year in a row, only the most recent one coming under the Obama administration. And the decline under Obama is largely due to a naturally-occurring fungus that has destroyed opium crops.

Though Afghanistan produced 90 percent of the world’s opium, the vast majority of farmers grow something other than poppies. Only 6.4 percent of the total population or 12.9 percent of the rural population was involved in poppy cultivation (UNODC survey, pg. 76).

What’s more, in Afghanistan, it’s actually against the Constitution to grow or cultivate poppies. So permitting poppy growing could send the wrong message to other Afghan farmers who are not growing poppies, Schweich suggests, in essence telling farmers it’s OK to violate the constitution, and it undermining the very rule of law they’re trying to establish.

“It’s a preposterous mixed message with no chance of long-term success,” he said.

Gregg admits though there are a number of contradictions in the international approach, such as the inequitable distribution of the foreign dollar in Afghanistan. The insurgency is in the South and Southeast, he says, where a lot of the foreign aid goes. “In some ways is rewarding bad behavior,” Gregg said. Some of what the military needs to do is to identify the swing provinces, he recommended, first award areas that aren’t growing poppies.

It may be that the previous policy of eradication – which could only be executed with force-protected, ground-based eradication and not aerial sprays – could be done better. But it was not in and of itself a bad policy, according to Schweich.

“The central poppy eradication force was inefficient. There’s no doubt about that. However, an eradication component to a comprehensive counternarcotics policy remains essential,” he said.

Some point to abuses in Mexican drug war

WASHINGTON–Mexican President Felipe Calderon and U.S. President Barack Obama used Calderon’s recent trip to Washington to reaffirm their mutual support for the fight against drug cartels on both sides of the border.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have called the fight a priority, and both Democrats and Republicans have proposed beefed-up security measures on the U.S. side of the border. Most recently, Obama announced plans to send 1,200 National Guard troops to the southwest border.

Congress has appropriated about $1.3 billion in anti-crime and drug funding for Mexico through the Merida Initiative, a multi-year program launched in 2007 that also targets criminal organizations in Central America and the Caribbean.

But the militarization of the fight against drug cartels on the Mexican side of the border, and U.S. support of the effort, has raised red flags in some quarters over escalating violence as well as human rights violations and corruption in the Mexican military and justice system.

At a U.S. Senate subcommittee hearing on drug enforcement and the rule of law May 18, Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, criticized the human rights record of the Mexican military and the lack of accountability for human rights violators. Calderon has relied heavily on the military in his effort to quell the drug cartels.

“Too often local leaders respond to public demands to get tough on crime by condoning abusive practices that not only undermine the rule of law by violating basic rights but also fail to curb crime,” Vivanco said.

In the three years since Calderon launched a military crackdown on drug cartels, about 22,700 people have been killed in drug-related violence.

Beyond the violence, Vivanco’s testimony pointed to alleged abuses by the military, including rape and killings, as well as at least 100 people who claimed to have been arbitrarily detained and then tortured to obtain false confessions since 2009.

Vivanco said that last year Congress should not have given Mexico the 15% of its funding under the Merida legislation that is conditional on fulfillment of human rights requirements. A State Department report to Congress highlighted some issues, including lack of transparency in the military justice system, but found that Mexico had met the four human rights conditions.

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., chairmen of the subcommittee, was also the sole senator in attendance at the hearing, as his colleagues were occupied with debating Wall Street reform. Durbin called the fight against drug cartels a priority but said the United States has a responsibility to see that its aid does not fuel human rights abuses.

“The military in Mexico in many instances operates with virtual impunity, resulting in limited success in stemming drug violence and human rights abuses that rival and surpass often the corruption of the law enforcement system they were sent to replace,” he said.

Officials from the State Department and Department of Justice testified that Mexico has made significant reforms. The Calderon administration has taken steps to remove suspect law enforcement officials, customs officials and judges and to reform and modernize its judicial system, with U.S. assistance.

David T. Johnson, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, wrote in his testimony that institutional reforms in Mexico are a work in progress.

“The strategy that the U.S. Government is pursuing with the Government of Mexico is an effective, long-term program, not a temporary ‘quick fix’,” he wrote.

As the drug war continues in Mexico, it’s a debate that will likely be played out many times.