Some "narco-states" are apparently more equal than others, if newly-announced US policy in Afghanistan is any indication. While the US worked to isolate the "narco-state" in Bolivia after the 1981 coup, refused to certify the "narco-state" in Colombia under President Samper, invaded and deposed the Panamanian "narco-state" of Manuel Noriega in 1989, and used the "narco-state" appellation to bolster its case for overthrowing the Taliban regime months ago, US officials have announced a "wink, wink, nod, nod" policy toward the explosion of new opium planting under the new Afghan government. If US and UN projections are correct, the interim government of Hamid Karzai, backed by the fighter-traffickers of the Northern Alliance and the military might of the US, will be the world's leading "narco-state."
According to the UN's International Drug Control Program, Afghani poppy fields cover between 111,000 and 161,000 acres this year, putting Afghanistan back in the lead as the world's largest opium producer, ahead of second-place Burma. The Afghan crop is estimated to account for 70% of the global total and is destined primarily for Europe and the increasing addict populations of Southwest Asia. The 2002 bumper crop represents a radical reversal from last year, when, after the Taliban banned the crop, production plummeted by 96% and was limited to zones controlled by longtime Taliban foes and current US darlings, the Northern Alliance.
US, UN and European officials had discussed a number of measures to address the rebirth of opium production, but, as the New York Times reported on Sunday, the US government has "quietly abandoned" efforts to reduce the crop this year. Instead, the US will resort to a transparent Potemkin Village policy of "persuading Afghan leaders to carry out a modest eradication program, if only to show that they were serious in declaring a ban on production in January."
By all accounts, the effort will be a joke. As drug czar John Walters told the Times, "The fact is, there are no institutions in large parts of the country. What we can do will be extremely limited."
Afghan officials on the scene concurred. "This year, we're not able to destroy the crops," said Haji Pir Mohammed, a top deputy to the governor of Helmand Province, a center of Afghan opium production. "If we try to enforce a ban on the farmers, it wouldn't be good for us," he acknowledged to the Washington Times in mid-March. The Times' reporter noted a steady stream of Toyota pickups laden with opium coming and going as he interviewed Mohammed.
While US officials decry the lack of a strong government to suppress the crop and its attendant trade, in reality the Bush administration is making a faustian bargain with the traffickers in order to prop up the new Afghan state. As the New York Times reported: "Now, the profits that flowed to local leaders aligned with the Taliban are expected to enrich tribal leaders and warlords whose support is vital to the American-backed interim government. Because opium poppy farming remains one of the few viable economic activities in Afghanistan, officials added, any intense eradication effort could imperil the stability of the government and hamper the military campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda."
"The fight against terrorism takes priority," one British official told the Times. "The fight against narcotics comes in second."
But other reports suggest that revenues from the opium trade could help finance continued military actions against the Karzai government and its American benefactors. Last week, as US, UN and European officials wrestled with the opium dilemma, one American official told the Washington Times that opium money "will fuel the guerrilla war that is expected to escalate against US and allied forces in the coming months."
The unnamed US official also suggested that anti-US elements within Pakistan's ISI intelligence service would benefit from the trade. "If this opium is harvested and permitted to go to market, it will re-empower the negative elements in Pakistan's security service and lead to instability in Pakistan," he said. "And it will fund a new round of international terrorism."
But this argument lost out to the realpolitik of supporting a friendly regime.