The effort to wipe out opium production has achieved limited success at best, hurt the poorest Afghans, and riddled the government with corruption from top to bottom, according to a comprehensive report released Tuesday by the United Nations and the World Bank.
Afghanistan produced 6,100 tons of opium this year -- enough to make 610 tons of heroin -- and is line to produce even more next year. Opium accounts for at least one-third of the Afghan GDP, and profits from the trade end up in the pockets of government ministers, warlords, traffickers, and Islamic radicals alike. But with opium employing 13% of the workforce, it is also farmers, rural laborers, transporters, and gunmen -- and their families -- who earn a living off the trade.
Efforts to eradicate opium crops have the greatest adverse impact on the poor, the study found. If alternative development is going to take hold in the country, planners must keep that in mind, said Alastair McKechnie, World Bank Country Director for Afghanistan.
"Efforts to discourage farmers from planting opium poppy should be concentrated in localities where land, water, and access to markets are such that alternative livelihoods are already available," he argued. "Rural development programs are needed throughout the country and should not be focused primarily on opium areas, to help prevent cultivation from further spreading."
"The critical adverse development impact of actions against drugs is on poor farmers and rural wage laborers," said William Byrd, World Bank economist and co-editor of the report. "Any counter-narcotics strategy needs to keep short-run expectations modest, avoid worsening the situation of the poor, and adequately focus on longer term rural development."
"History teaches us that it will take a generation to render Afghanistan opium-free," said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of UNODC, who used the release of the report to argue for a dual approach of aid and repression. "But we need concrete results now," he said, proposing to double the number of opium-free provinces from six to 12 next year. "I therefore propose that development support to farmers, the arrest of corrupt officials and eradication measures be concentrated in half a dozen provinces with low cultivation in 2006 so as to free them from the scourge of opium. Those driving the drug industry must be brought to justice and officials who support it sacked."
Despite his tough talk, what Costa did not say was that his proposal amounted to a recognition that effective eradication is impossible in the primary opium-producing provinces of the country this year. Although the World Bank-UN report barely mentions them, a resurgent Taliban, grown rich -- like everyone else -- on the profits of protecting the trade, has been a big reason why.
"Now that the control is more in the hands of the Taliban and their supporters, there is less hope for eradication and more people are involved and looking to make money, so the chances for success are not good," said Raheem Yaseer of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghanistan Studies. "I am less optimistic than I was even a few weeks ago," he told Drug War Chronicle. "The British were talking a lot about concentrating on eradication in Helmand province, but they didn't do much because they were too busy fighting the Taliban. If nothing is done, it will be worse next year."
Those trying to get rid of opium will be up against not only the Taliban but also elements of the government itself. "This report emphasizes the way counter-narcotics efforts have been manipulated and perverted to result in a concentration of power," said Brookings Institution expert on illicit substances and military conflict Vanda Felbab-Brown. "Governors, provincial chiefs, district police chiefs -- people like these were tasked with eradication or interdiction, but they used their power to target their opposition or competition," she told the Chronicle. "Essentially, local actors were able to capture counter-narcotics efforts and use them to not only consolidate control and power over the drug industry, but also increase their political power. Counter-narcotics policy is being perverted to help create a new distribution of power in Afghanistan."
The report also confirms some emerging trends that signal even more trouble in the future, Felbab-Brown noted. "One of the things confirmed in the report is the increasing concentration and hierarchical organization of the drug economy in Afghanistan," she said. "This has been a trend that the report confirms is taking place. The warlords and commanders are vanishing from the visible drug economy. They no longer trade directly; these guys with positions of power inside the government are instead now taking protection money. They are not directly participating in the trade, but they are still participating."
The UN's Costa can call for six more opium-free provinces and the Americans and the Karzai government can daydream about success through chemical eradication, but this sobering document from the sober people at the World Bank and the UN is just the latest to send a strong signal that the global drug prohibition regime has tied itself in knots in Afghanistan.