"Respected people of Helmand," the radio message began, "the soldiers of the International Security Assistance Force and the Afghan National Army do not destroy poppy fields. They know that many people of Afghanistan have no choice but to grow poppy. ISAF and the ANA do not want to stop people from earning their livelihoods."
Such a sensible message that it had to be a mistake, and of course it was.
The message, written by an ISAF officer and broadcast last week, was immediately condemned by Afghan and American officials from President Hamid Karzai on down. So does that mean that ISAF really is going to destroy the farmers' poppy fields?
Well, not exactly. The latest plan is for civilians to spray farmers' fields with herbicides, while the Western soldiers just stop the farmers from retaliating. That should win lots of hearts and minds in opium-producing provinces where the Taliban is making an armed comeback.
The soldiers of the ISAF don't want to be seen as destroyers of the poppy crop, because that would get lots of them killed. (Farmers can turn into Taliban fighters overnight.) It was allegedly an officer from the Territorial Army (the UK's mostly part-time reserve forces), newly arrived from Britain, who "got a bit carried away with the language" and sent the offending message. But most other army officers in Afghanistan, whatever their nationality, privately agree with him.
You cannot successfully fight a war against the Taliban and a "war on drugs" at the same time.
That was clearly understood at the time of the invasion in 2001. The Taliban, austere Islamist fanatics that they were, had eradicated poppy-growing entirely by the simple expedient of hanging anybody they caught growing it. The Taliban begged for Western aid for the distressed farmers, who were only earning a quarter as much growing grain and vegetables.
Then the Taliban's house guests, Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda friends, carried out the 9/11 attacks imagining that it would result in an invasion of Afghanistan, a long guerrilla war and ultimate humiliation for the U.S.
The U.S. dodged that bullet by not really invading Afghanistan at all. It simply contacted the various ethnic warlords who were already at war with the Taliban, gave them better weapons and lots of money and left the fighting on the ground to them.
However, the U.S. depended on those warlords to keep Afghanistan quiet. The warlords needed cash flow, which meant poppies: opium and refined heroin account for over one-third of Afghanistan's gross domestic product and almost all of its exports. So the U.S. let its warlord allies encourage farmers to replant poppies, and didn't object when they were "elected" to Karzai's cabinet either.
Afghanistan now produces 92 per cent of the world's heroin. The U.S. "war on drugs" lobby insists something be done, so the U.S. and allied armies end up trying to destroy the crops. The Taliban swallow their anti-drug principles and promise to protect the farmers. Guess who wins the war.