To no one's surprise, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced last week that Afghan opium production had reached another record high. The announcement comes against a background of continued high levels of violence between Taliban insurgents reinvigorated in part by the infusion of drug trade money and combined US/NATO/Afghan forces as the insurgency continues to regenerate itself.
The increase in poppy production is lending heft to increasingly shrill calls by the Americans to respond with a massive -- preferably aerial -- poppy eradication campaign. Now, there are signs the Karzai government's firm opposition to aerial spraying is weakening. But US foreign policy, Afghanistan, and drugs and conflict experts contacted by Drug War Chronicle all said such a campaign would be counterproductive -- at best.
Afghanistan now supplies around 93% of the world's opium, up just a bit from last year's estimated 92%.
The UNODC reported that the number of opium-free provinces had increased from six last year to 13 this year. It noted that production had diminished in center-north Afghanistan, where Northern Alliance warlords reign supreme, but had exploded in the east and southeast -- precisely those areas where the Taliban presence is strongest. Half of the world supply comes from a single Afghan province, Helmand in the southeast, where, not coincidentally, the Taliban has managed to "control vast swathes of territory" despite the efforts of NATO and Afghan troops to dislodge it.
"Opium cultivation is inversely related to the degree of government control," said UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa in a statement accompanying the report's release. "Where anti-government forces reign, poppies flourish. The Afghan opium situation looks grim, but it is not yet hopeless," he added.
Costa called on the Afghan government and the international community to make a more determined effort to fight the "twin threats" of opium and insurgency, including more rewards for farmers or communities that abandon the poppy and more sanctions on those who don't, as well as attacking the prohibition-related corruption that makes the Karzai government as complicit in the opium trade as any other actor. [Ed: Costa of course didn't use the word prohibition -- but he should have.]
He also called for NATO to get more involved in counter-narcotics operations, something it has been loathe to do. "Since drugs are funding insurgency, Afghanistan's military and its allies have a vested interest in destroying heroin labs, closing opium markets and bringing traffickers to justice. Tacit acceptance of opium trafficking is undermining stabilization efforts," he said.
But this week, NATO appeared unmoved. "We are doing the best we can, we would ask others to do more," NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary-General for Operations Jim Pardew told a Brussels news conference Wednesday. "The fight against narcotics is first and foremost an Afghan responsibility but they need help."
NATO spokesman James Appathurai added that: "NATO is not mandated to be an eradication force, nor is it proposed. Eradication is one part of a complex strategy."
NATO's reticence is in part due to rising casualties. So far this year, 82 NATO soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, according to the I-Casualties web site, which tracks US and allied forces killed and wounded in both Iraq and Afghanistan. That's along with 82 US soldiers, at least 500 Afghan National Police, numerous Afghan Army soldiers, hundreds -- if not thousands -- of insurgents, and hundreds of civilians.
In all of last year, 98 US and 93 NATO troops were killed; in 2005, 99 US and 31 NATO troops were killed; and in 2004, only 52 US and six NATO soldiers died. The trend line is ominous, and with public support for intervening in the opium war weak in Europe and Canada, NATO reluctance to get more deeply involved reflects political reality at home.
It's not the same with the US government. Less than a month ago, and anticipating a record crop this year, the government released its US Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan. The strategy called for integrating counterinsurgency and counternarcotics, a resort to mass eradication, and the increased use of the US military in the battle against the poppy.
"There is a clear and direct link between the illicit opium trade and insurgent groups in Afghanistan," the State Department report said. The Pentagon "will work with DEA" and other agencies "to develop options for a coordinated strategy that integrates and synchronizes counternarcotics operations, particularly interdiction, into the comprehensive security strategy."
Bush administration officials have long pushed for aerial eradication, and the UNODC report has added fuel to the flames. On Sunday, Afghan first vice-president Ahmed Zia Massoud broke with President Karzai to call for a more "forceful approach" to tackle the poppies "that have spread like cancer," as he and Karzai both have put it. "We must switch from ground based eradication to aerial spraying," he wrote in the London Sunday Telegraph.
But the British government begs to differ. Senior Foreign Office officials dismissed such calls, saying "it is difficult to envisage circumstances where the benefits of aerial eradication outweigh the disadvantages."
The Karzai government, while apparently now split on whether to okay aerial spraying, is turning up the pressure on the West to do more. On Monday, the Afghan government announced it had formally asked NATO and US forces to clear Taliban fighters from opium-growing areas before Afghan troops move in to eradicate.
"For a new plan for this year, we've requested that the foreign military forces go and conduct military operations to enable us to eradicate poppy crops," Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary said at a Monday press conference. "In areas where there's insecurity, we need strong military support to be able to eradicate poppy fields. Police can't eradicate poppies and fight insurgents at the same time," he said.
That request came on the heels of criticism of the West last week from President Karzai himself. He accused the international community of dropping the ball when it came to counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, noting pointedly that where his government had control, poppy production had dropped.
UNODC head Costa Wednesday kept up the pressure, telling that Brussels news conference: "There is very strong pressure building up in favor of aerial eradication in that part of Afghanistan. The government has not decided yet and we will support the government in whatever it decides to do," he said.
But while aerial spraying and increased US and NATO military involvement in the anti-poppy campaign look increasingly probable, that route is paved with obstacles, according to the experts consulted by the Chronicle.
"The change in the Afghan position is a direct response to the US upping the pressure on the Karzai government to adopt a Colombian-style model of aerial eradication," said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "Until very recently, the Karzai government really resisted that because they understood this will antagonize a good many Afghan farmers, but when you are the client of a powerful patron, the pressure is difficult to resist."
While massive eradication may indeed have some impact on the opium trade, it will come at a "horrific cost," said Carpenter. "That will drive farmers into the hands of the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies, which is absolutely the last thing we need in pressing the war against Islamic terrorism," he said. "Afghanistan was hailed as a great success as recently as two years ago, but now it's looking very dicey, the security situation is deteriorating rapidly, and a massive eradication campaign will only make it worse."
"Eradication was stronger this year than last, but it still amounted to almost nothing," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution who specializes in drugs, insurgencies, and counterinsurgencies. "So now, the pressure for aerial eradication is almost at fever pitch. But there is real debate about whether this would really achieve anything or end up being counterproductive. I think it would be a disaster," she said, citing the now familiar reasons of humanitarian problems and increasing support for the Taliban.
When asked to comment by the Chronicle, Barnett Rubin, Director of Studies and Senior Fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, pointed to his blog posts at Informed Comment Global Affairs. Calling eradication "the most photogenic tool" in counter-narcotics strategy, Rubin wrote that he was often forced to point out that: "The international drug trade is not caused by Afghan farmers."
The key problem is not drugs, Rubin argued, but drug money, which finances the insurgency and corrupts government forces. Embarking on a campaign of eradication does not effectively go after the drug money, he wrote, because 80% of it goes to traffickers. And it will increase the value of poppy crops, making them more attractive to farmers.
"More forcible eradication at this time," Rubin wrote, "when both interdiction and alternative livelihoods are barely beginning, will increase the economic value of the opium economy, spread cultivation back to areas of the country that have eliminated or reduced it, and drive more communities into the arms of the Taliban."
US policy is being driven less by what will work in Afghanistan than by domestic political concerns, Felbab-Brown said. "With presidential elections coming up, Afghanistan is going to be a political issue. The question Democrats will ask is 'Who lost Afghanistan'? Thus, there is a real incentive for the Republicans to demonstrate results in some way, and the easiest way is with aerial spraying. This is a classic case of policy being dominated by politics," she said.
"Lost in all the politics is the fact that eradication has never worked in the context of military conflict," Felbab-Brown noted. "It only comes after peace has been achieved, whether through repression, as in the Maoist model, through alternative development, or through eradication and interdiction. Since the security situation in Afghanistan is not improving, it is very unlikely eradication will work. Karzai likes to talk about drugs as a cancer afflicting Afghanistan, but by embracing aerial eradication, we are prescribing the treatment that kills the patient," she said.
"Counter-narcotics efforts will not be successful until security improves," said Felbab-Brown. "That's the priority, and that will require various components, one of which is inevitably more troops on the ground." But she said she sees no political will for such a move in NATO or in the US. "As a result of Iraq, there is no will to increase troops in this vitally important theater, so I am very skeptical about the prospects for that," she said.
"The situation is growing grimmer and grimmer, and the US response has been to move in the wrong direction," she summarized. "Now, it appears the train has left the station, and the voices that tried to stop it are falling by the wayside. American Afghan policy is being held hostage to domestic political concerns."
"Nobody has a good answer for Afghanistan," said Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann, who recently published an article calling for the creation of a global vice district there. "The question is what are the choices? One, we can keep doing what we're doing, which is not accomplishing anybody's objectives. Two, we could embark on an aggressive aerial eradication campaign, which would be a humanitarian disaster and push people into the hands of the Taliban," he said, summarizing the most likely policy options to occur.
"Three, there is outright legalization, but that isn't on anybody's political horizon," Nadelmann continued. "Four, there is the notion of just buying up the opium. That might work for a year or so, but it would almost inevitably become a sort of price support system with the country producing twice as much the following year. There's no reason why farmers wouldn't sell some to us and some to the underground; it would only inject another buyer into the market."
Finally, said Nadelmann, there is the Senlis Council proposal to license opium production for the licit medicinal market. "The Senlis proposal is an interesting idea, but there are a lot of issues with it, including the question of whether there really is a global shortage of opiate pain medications. It is good that Senlis put that provocative idea out there, but the question is whether it is workable," Nadelmann said.
There is another option, he explained. "Let's just accept opium as a global commodity," he said, "and let's think of Afghanistan as the global equivalent of a local red light district. It has all sorts of natural advantages in opium production -- it's a low-cost producer and there is a history of opium growing there. With global opium production centered almost exclusively in Afghanistan, as it is now, there is less likelihood it will pop up somewhere else, possibly with even more negative consequences," he argued.
"We are not talking about a place with a vacuum of authority that fosters terrorism, but a regulated activity serving a global market that cannot be eradicated or suppressed, as we know from a hundred years of history," Nadelmann continued. "We have to accept the fact that it will continue to be grown, but we should manipulate the market to ensure that the US, NATO, and the Karzai government advance their economic, political, and security objectives."
While the notion may sound shocking, the US government has historically been unafraid of working with criminal elements when it served its interests, whether it was heroin traffickers in Southeast Asia or the docks of Marseilles or cocaine traffickers during the Central American wars of the 1980s or Afghan rebels growing poppies during the war against the Soviets. "We've gotten in bed with organized criminals and warlords throughout our history when it served our objectives," Nadelmann noted.
Such a move would not require public pronouncements, Nadelmann said; in fact, quite the opposite. "Bush wouldn't come out and declare a policy shift, but you just sort of quietly allow it to happen, just as during the Cold War you made deals with strongmen because you were pursuing a more important objective. There have to be moral limits, of course, but to the extent you can semi-legitimize it you increase the chance of effectively regulating and controlling it," he said.
"You can call this suggestion Machiavellian," Nadelmann said, "or you can call it simple pragmatism, but given a lot of crummy choices, this could be the least worst."