An international donor's conference this week in London resulted in pledges of more than $10 billion in developmental assistance for Afghanistan, but more than four years after the United States invaded and overthrew the Taliban, neither the West nor the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai has figured out what to do about the country's burgeoning opium economy. Opium production has exploded since 2001, with Afghan poppies now accounting for nearly 90% of the world's heroin supply and more than 50% of the country's economy, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
With opium playing such a key role in the Afghan political economy, dealing with it is integral to efforts to develop the country, create viable political institutions, and foster social stability. To ensure that those goals are met, the West is sending boots on the ground along with money. Some 19,000 US troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan, and the NATO presence is expected to grow to 15,000 troops this year, including more than 3,000 British troops set to go to southern Helmand province, both a key opium-producing province and a hotbed of Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgent activity.
"Afghanistan has been a success story," Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah bravely asserted in London this week. "It has been a success story by all accounts. Today we have a constitution. Today we have an elected president. Today we have an elected parliament." Still, Abdullah conceded, the presence of insurgents and well-armed drug traffickers meant the government needed foreign troops to support it. "The presence of the international forces in Afghanistan, of course it is needed, not only for the overall stability of the country but they are also helping us in the training of our own national army, our own national police force, and other security institutions."
Indeed. If anything, the security situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. President Karzai remains in effect "the Mayor of Kabul," with central government control limited in the countryside, and the Taliban and Al Qaeda are back with a vengeance. More than 1,600 people were killed in fighting last year, including 99 US troops -- double the number killed in the each of the three preceding years -- and suicide bombings, once a rarity, have become commonplace. The US Embassy constantly warns staffers and visitors to avoid restaurants, hotels, and other places popular with foreigners, and has banned embassy personnel from traveling on Jalalabad Road, one of the main highways out of the city.
President Karzai warned the West this week that it could take 15 years to wipe out opium in his country and it was likely to involve fighting insurgents and traffickers alike. "It might entail fighting terrorism, as the coalition is already doing," he told BBC Radio 4's Today program. Poppy cultivation is fueling the insurgents, he said. "Terrorists and drug money go hand in hand. This money generated by poppies supports terrorism. They are now intimidating farmers, forcing them to grow poppies," he said. "We have a tough fight on our hands but we have to overcome it."
Karzai may have an even tougher fight on his hands in reining in members of his own government, a large number of whom have links to the opium trade. According to some observers, as many as 60% of those elected to parliament last fall are linked to warlords and the drug traffic, such as former Jalalabad-based warlord Hazrat Ali. Some governors and other officials are also believed tied to the trade.
Moving against opium not only threatens to drive farmers into the hands of rebels and sow dissension within the government, it also threatens the primary economic engine of the country and the livelihoods of millions of Afghan citizens. Britain, the US, and the Afghan government are now struggling to reach a common strategy to combat the drug.
"I'm not sure there is a single unified strategy," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a research fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government who watches Afghan affairs. "US military and political authorities originally didn't want to deal with the counter-narcotics issues because they were worried about the military being drawn into a difficult situation. They were also concerned about antagonizing the population and certain prominent warlords who were implicated in the drug trade like Hazrat Ali," she said.
"Britain was supposed to take the lead role, and it tried compensated eradication, but that didn't work," said Felbab-Brown. "Then they embraced alternative development in combination with interdiction and limited eradication. But meanwhile in the US, the Democrats, for domestic political purposes, were jumping on the Bush administration about Afghanistan becoming a failed narco-state, and there were similar complaints from the World Bank and the UNODC. As a result, the US Embassy in Kabul starting setting up alternative means of pursuing counter-narcotics efforts, they created an eradication task force, then expanded the US military mission to protect the task force. The US wants a much faster, stronger eradication effort," she said.
And it's willing to pay for it. The Bush administration asked for and got $780 million for counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan this year and is expected to push aggressively on eradication. The US is heavily invested in Afghanistan. It pledged $1.2 billion in development aid in London this week, and Thursday the administration announced it was seeking another $70 billion in war funds for Iraq and Afghanistan. While most of that is destined for Iraq, it still means billions more in military spending in Afghanistan.
The Afghan government is caught in the middle, said Felbab-Brown. "The Brits have the lead role, but the Americans are becoming very active. The Karzai government announced its own strategy in 2004, one that embraces eradication, alternative development, building law enforcement capacity and the rule of law, and I don't think the London conference will change that. None of these three actors has successfully captured control of counter-narcotics policy. Karzai would like to be in charge, but many important assets are dependent on the US. The resulting policy is a mix of all the classic source country strategies."
"It appears the US has ruled out aerial eradication, but even the very rapid eradication it desires would, if carried out, generate very large instability in Afghanistan," said Felbab-Brown. "The people will be deprived of their sources of income and be forced into debt. They may go to Pakistan, and they will be susceptible to manipulation by the Taliban and local warlords, even if those warlords are now governors. They can tell the farmers 'Karzai is an American stooge enforcing the will of the infidels.' Large-scale eradication will create instability in the face of a growing insurgency."
That is happening in Nangahar province, the scene of an effective eradication effort last year. Village elders north of Jalalabad who spoke with DRCNet in October complained bitterly that the government had wrecked their crop, promised compensation, and then failed to deliver.
"When we grew opium, the farmers were strong," said elder Amasha Kaul over tea and cookies. "Now we have little money. When the government destroyed our crop, they said they would compensate us, but they never did. The government is big liars."
With eradication efforts leaving a legacy of bitterness and despair, the Senlis Council thinks it has a better idea. The European drug policy think-tank that last fall proposed licensing part of the opium crop and diverting it into the legitimate medicinal market, used the occasion of the London conference to hold its own press conference to denounce eradication and release a report supporting its position. "Eradication is a dangerous and ineffective policy and it attacks those who are profiting least in the opium trade -- the farmers," said Senlis executive director Emmanuel Reinert. "Farmers are the most vulnerable part of the opium production chain; they are the first casualties of this ineffective tool used to attempt to curb production of opium for heroin."
"If implemented, the planned eradication would be a dangerous gamble which would jeopardize the achievements so far," said Jorrit Kamminga, a Senlis policy analyst who worked on the council's Eradication Assessment Report. "Eradication is a tool which should only be used as a last resort in countries where the rule of law is firmly established. Eradication, while touted as a crucial part of the international community's reconstruction work in Afghanistan, is in fact an impediment to reconstruction in the country."
"These displaced families have either had to find itinerant work within Afghanistan or even covertly cross the border into Pakistan in search of a means of supporting their families," said Gulalai Momand, Deputy Country Manager for The Senlis Council in Afghanistan.
The Senlis Council also unveiled a proposed new anti-eradication law that would severely punish anyone who participates in involuntary eradication activities. "Individuals -- including public officials of any nationality and including Afghans and private contractors -- will face heavy penalties of up to 200 billion Afghanis (US$200 million) and up to 25 years of prison for any forced eradication activities," said Reinert. The law will be presented to the Afghan parliament for consideration, Senlis said.
The council is also launching a farmer's defense fund to help victims of eradication and has proposed a national farmers' jirga, or council, to be held in Kabul in April. "The Jirga will provide farmers -- the real stakeholders in Afghanistan's opium crisis -- with the opportunity to become part of the debate and discussion concerning drug policy in Afghanistan," said Gulalai Momand. "They will be able to share their views on opium licensing, eradication and alternative livelihood programmes."
Interdiction -- arresting traffickers, busting labs -- is another alternative, but has had paradoxical results, said Felbab-Brown. "In both Nangahar and Helmand, interdiction has led to the vertical integration of the trade. It used to be many small traders, but now it's larger traders who are well-connected to local authorities. The police will selectively bust traffickers from different ethnic groups or they will tax traffickers, and when they arrest traffickers, they frequently seize the stock and sell it to other, better-connected traffickers. Is this progress?" she asked.
It is not only, or even primarily, farmers who are profiting from the opium trade. While the value of Afghan opium last year was estimated at $2.7 billion, only about $550 million was paid to farmers, with the rest going to smugglers and traffickers. While much of that money doubtlessly goes to people in the Afghan government, among those benefiting from the trade is the Taliban, and possibly, though not conclusively, Al Qaeda.
"The Taliban lost control over production when they were pushed from power in late 2001," said Felbab-Brown. "For several years, it was cut off as local warlords, who could protect fields and control enforcement, had the advantage. It probably had ties with some Pashtun traders, but it couldn't protect them inside the country. But now, with the interdiction efforts underway, some of the local crime organizations are looking for new protectors. We've seen some joint fights with Taliban and local traffickers and traffickers carrying out attacks for the Taliban. The real question is to what extent are they connected to the traffic in Pakistan," she said.
As for Al Qaeda, which remains active on the Afghan-Pakistan border, Felbab-Brown said there was no "persuasive, conclusive evidence" that it was involved in the traffic. Without a territorial base in Afghanistan, it would be impossible for Al Qaeda to protect crops and difficult for the group to try to tax cultivation. "It's more likely they will try to penetrate smuggling routes and tax them, and it is plausible they could have the means to do so in Pakistan."
While the Taliban and Al Qaeda are distinct entities with separate goals, those goals are complementary, and the distinctions may be blurring to some degree, Felbab-Brown said. "There are personal linkages between the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership, and being pushed into Pakistan together gives them further opportunity to act. The current insurgency that calls itself the Taliban has many more international jihadis from the Gulf, even Iraq, and they are fighting as Taliban," she said. "Still, while there are a lot of connections, the two are distinct entities," she concluded.
The only long-term solution, said Felbab-Brown is comprehensive rural development, but that takes time. "Alternative development will have to be part of any lasting solution to freeing Afghanistan of opium production, but if you look at the historical record, it has been extremely difficult to achieve on a countrywide level. The only place I can think of where it worked is Thailand, and there it took 30 years and lots of money and systematic effort. What we are talking about here is comprehensive rural development, and we cannot assume that will take hold rapidly. There is a real danger that the West will grow impatient and demand significant decreases in poppy production in a year or two, then move more aggressively toward eradication. This is something that is going to take 10 years or more, and I'm not sure the international community has the patience for that."