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Frontline: Opium Brides

Cast: Najibullah Quraishi, Sebastian Rotella (narrator)
Regular airtime: Tuesdays, 10pm ET

(PBS; US: 2 Jan 2012)

What We Most Fear

“In a sense, we have helped to bring about the situation that we most fear.” Robert Grenier, who served as the director of the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center from 2004-2006, is talking about Afghanistan. More specifically, he’s talking about the escalation of drone attacks by the Obama administration. As he speaks, Frontline shows drone point-of-view footage, targets in grainy black and white.


Grenier makes this point late in “The Secret War,” which is actually an update on a Frontline report that aired last year. It serves as both a grim conclusion for the first segment of the 3 January program and an introduction for the second segment, “Opium Brides.” The first lays out the current state of the drone wars in Afghanistan. Grenier explains, “The calculus is really a very simple one, it’s trying to kill people before they kill you.”


Grenier is retired now, and so able to speak in ways that current agents cannot. He adds that a “potentially intended effect” would also be that insurgents will be discouraged when they “see others going up in a puff of smoke,” but Frontline exposes that the opposite is occurring, that the drone wars are inspiring more militants against the US, is hardly surprising. It also sets up a disturbing framework for the second part of this Frontline, “Opium Brides.” The segment opens in a village, where reporter Najibullah Quraishi interviews a woman surrounded by her young children. Her husband, she says, has been imprisoned by drug traffickers. He owes them money, which they lent him in order to plant poppies and which was lost when government agents destroyed the crop. Now, the wife says, her seven-year-old daughter beside her, the traffickers say they will take the money or the girl. “We fled because of the debt,” says the mother, “Now we keep moving from one place to another.” The little girl imagines what’s in store: “They will make me do the poppy and opium work, make me sweep and do the dishes, and one of these days, they will ask me to marry one of the smugglers.” The camera lingers on her face.


As Frontline describes it, this is “not an isolated story.” Increasingly, drug traffickers are taking children when farmers cannot pay their debts. The government, in turn, denies knowledge of the practice, one representative insisting he has no “official” exports of what goes on (“We haven’t heard anything like that”). Though Afghan agents see their “eradication” of poppy fields, and subsequent offer of alternative crop seeds, as a means to an end, namely, the destruction of the illegal opium trade, which brings in billions of dollars to the national economy and funds the Taliban.


Frontline underlines that the Afghans don’t act alone in any of this. Members of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) accompany the Afghan police on their eradications. Asked about the effects of such raids, the ISAF’s Admiral Tony Johnstone-Burt insists that his men—and the governments who fund and train them—are not responsible, that the Afghans are making their own decisions. When the Frontline reporter suggests this is a matter of “semantics,” the admiral has no answer, and can only repeat that ISAF doesn’t “eradicate.” 


The program insists that the international forces are ignorant (at best), the Afghan government is corrupt, and the farmers are impoverished and desperate to feed their families, willing to believe whatever lies they might be told by the drug smugglers.


Quraishi interviews one man who “gave up his daughter,” and now expresses his guilt dramatically. When the traffickers took his eight-year-old daughter, he says, “I put opium in my mouth for the first time. The next day I did it again. Because of sorrow I became addicted to this powder.” Now a full-on heroin addict, he prepares a dose in front of his young son, who watches carefully, his eyes wide as he murmurs, “Father, father, father.” The man claims the heroin calms him, but he turns on his child, quietly and devastatingly: “Why are you following me?” he asks. “Wherever I sit, you pop up right away. Don’t follow me. In the future, you will also get addicted and become like me.”


Again, the camera hovers on the child’s face. And, even with all the horror stories the program offers—one man who was held by traffickers for six months describes the torture he endured, a girl who escaped from traffickers reports that “They did every possible cruelty to me,” or the beautifully composed shot of Quraishi huddled against a wall, his head in his hands—this image of a boy unable to understand his father’s unkindness, but absorbing it all the same—is one of the most terrible.


This boy, and other children inevitably shaped by their experiences, are “the situation that we most fear.” They’re the effects of war—of drone attacks, of a devastated infrastructure and a drug economy, of daily violence and monstrosity—that remain unplanned and, thus far, unaddressed.

Rating:

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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