Taliban Twists Shrub With Poppy Politics

Bush’s Opium Bender

In its dealings with Afghanistan, the Bush administration has inherited a real catch-22. On the one hand, the White House needs to get rid of the terrorist Osama bin Laden, who is sheltered by the ruling Taliban. On the other, it wants to continue the global war on drugs — a campaign in which the internationally shunned Islamic extremists have become an unexpected ally, slapping a ban on growing the poppies that provided 75 percent of the world’s opium supply.

Now Bush is in the ungainly position of favoring the Northern Alliance, a Russian-backed resistance group that funds its efforts in part by trafficking in narcotics. “The basic problem is that the U.S. so far has failed disastrously in Afghanistan, and for a decade has had no policy toward Afghanistan other than bin Laden,” says S. Frederick Starr, chair of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “It is legal under U.S.-led UN sanctions to send arms to the Northern Alliance, which is actively exporting drugs, but illegal to send arms to the Taliban, which has stopped drug production.”

In eradicating poppies, Afghanistan shut down a market with a total production value of $100 billion. The Taliban received relatively little of that money, with annual revenues during the 1990s of $10 million to $75 million, but farmers could still bank on a crop worth five times as much as conventional rice or wheat.

Starr argues that if the UN fails to loosen the strictures against Afghanistan, the Taliban may let farmers plant poppies again rather than allow other countries like Pakistan and Myanmar to jump in. The Taliban has no standing with the UN, which has given Afghanistan’s seat to the Northern Alliance. So far, the Taliban leaders’ biggest role in the world economy has been supplying the raw material for drugs. “And without Western, U.S., and UN leadership,” Starr says, “it will not change.”

Afghanistan’s poppy growers are having an especially rough time of it because a drought is compounding the difficulty of switching to other crops. This year, the U.S. allocated $120 million in aid to Afghanistan, including $43 million in food aid during the month of May. Assisting the Afghan people, says Charles Fairbanks, a former deputy assistant secretary of state under Bush and Reagan who now teaches at Johns Hopkins, is the only moral choice. The U.S. helped create the mess there when it sided against Russian invaders in the 1980s, giving the impression we’d be around to help with the consequences, too. Aid now “is a matter of honor,” Fairbanks says. “They fought on the American side and the side of the administration in the last battle of the Cold War, and we just abandoned them. There is something not right about that.”

Far Right Threatens Chelsea Deposition

Hairy Pater

Clinton haters got a whiff of red meat Monday, when the crazed right-wing whistleblowers at Judicial Watch told they will probably call former first daughter Chelsea Clinton as a material witness in yet another Pardongate scandal. Russell Verney, southwest regional director of Judicial Watch and a former top official in Ross Perot’s Reform Party, said he wants to depose the 21-year-old Chelsea in a civil suit filed by Peter Paul against Bill and Hillary Clinton and onetime Democratic National Committee boss Ed Rendell.

Paul, a cofounder of Stan Lee Media and a big-time Democratic contributor, claims a party leader solicited $150,000 in exchange for pardoning fraud and drug convictions. Paul says he has the checks to prove it. But why they would need to depose Chelsea isn’t entirely clear.

Verney says Chelsea’s testimony is a must because she wrote a thank-you note to Paul for the $2 million he coughed up to stage the “Hollywood Tribute to Bill Clinton,” a gala fundraiser last August. Paul says he and associate Stan Lee wanted Bill to join their corporation’s board. “According to a note Chelsea wrote,” Verney told the conservative site, “she and Bill Clinton stayed up all night one night playing Scrabble and they were talking about him joining Peter Paul’s company after he left the presidency and the fact that Peter Paul was putting on this big gala out in California.”

GOP Leads Charge on Working Stiffs

Tax or Consequences

Although Bush’s tax boondoggle was heralded as a recession-breaker, its real purpose was to reward the rich people who supported his campaign, by taking social welfare programs from the middle class and the poor.

Over the next 10 years, the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans, whose annual incomes average over $1 million, will receive $774 billion in tax breaks, amounting to 43 percent of the total Bush tax cuts. Citizens for Tax Justice, a public-interest group in Washington, estimates that $774 billion would be more than enough to provide American seniors with a comprehensive Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Who else pays for the rich? Consider a few of the ways ordinary people get screwed yet again.

Head Start: The GOP wants to cut the preschool program by $1.2 billion, reducing slots for kids by 150,000.

College lending: Republicans aim to cut it by $1.6 billion, eliminating funding for more than 1.4 million poor students.

Smaller classes: Forget it. Despite the fevered talk about upping kids’ achievement, the government proposes to spend $310 million less on schools, nixing the hiring of 6600 teachers and denying 20,000 children a chance to get into smaller classes.

After-school programs: Tough luck. Politicians blab on about helping “little momma” and wring their hands over school massacres, when in fact they could care less. With over three-quarters of all women with school-age children working, 5 million kids are left unsupervised every afternoon, the time when research shows they get into violent crime. Bush wants to cut after-school and summer school programs by over $160 million, removing places for 215,000 kids.

Child Care: The GOP wants to cut spending on this block grant by more than $30 million, resulting in 9500 fewer child care opportunities. “Nationally, only one in 10 children who are eligible for child care assistance under federal law receives any help,” writes the Economic Policy Institute. “In many states, the cost of child care now outstrips the cost of attending a public college.”

Unemployment: The Republican spending plan would cut assistance to dislocated workers by about $305 million, affecting services for almost 135,000 workers.

Meanwhile, the administration’s task force on saving the government retirement plan is toying with the idea of making people work longer and cutting payouts. The pols are also looking at converting Social Security to private investment accounts, a move that would put individual benefits at risk while providing aid — in the form of brokerage and management fees — to Wall Street millionaires. That way, Bush and his supporters argue, Joe Six Pack will cash in on the stock market boom — uh, bust.

Guards Ask Passengers to Drink Up

Hydro Planing

Flying today is already a nightmare, what with rushing to the airport early for security check-ins, waiting endlessly for planes to take off, and arriving at your destination hours (sometimes days) late.

Now there appears to be a new sticking point: carry-on beverages. Last week on a Northwest Airlines flight from Washington’s Reagan National airport to Minneapolis, passengers were asked to empty metal out of their pockets and change purses and then, with security cops watching, take a drink out of any bottle of water they were carrying. One passenger tells the Voice anyone carrying a coffee cup was asked to sip from that, too.

“Well, yes, it’s part of the security screening procedure,” says Northwest spokesperson Kathy Peach. “If there is an open bottle of liquid of whatever, they may ask someone to take a sip of it to make sure the contents coincide with what’s in the label.”

In other words, the cups and bottles might have been poisoned or filled with explosive liquids or agents of biological warfare. It is common for a Secret Service taster to nibble the food in a restaurant where the president is about to dine, but testing the drinking water of every airplane passenger in the U.S. is quite an undertaking.

What if you get caught carrying an innocent-looking bottle of water that doesn’t meet the gate staff’s standards? Jail? Having your stomach pumped? What if you’re carrying medical supplies, like Pepto-Bismol, cough syrup, saline solution, or urine samples? Do you have to drink out of opened perfume?

When the Federal Aviation Agency in Washington was asked if this was a new security precaution, they referred the caller to a New York office. A spokesperson in New York said security measures were the airlines’ responsibility, not the government’s. Nonetheless, he explained, the FAA never discloses security measures. Asked why, he said, “Common sense.”

Additional reporting: Ariston-Lizabeth Anderson and Rouven Gueissaz