On Saturday, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime released its estimate of the 2006 Afghan opium crop, and the numbers are astoundingly bad. According to the UNODCO, this year's crop is 60% larger than last year's and will yield an all-time record 6,100 tons of opium. Afghan opium will account for a whopping 92% of global illicit opium production. This report, which must come as a punch in the gut to the US and NATO, strongly suggests that the US/NATO/Karzai strategy of attempting to uproot the opium crop and the opium economy--which is Afghanistan's primary economic motor--is not only failing, it is backfiring. Opium production has now spread to 28 of the country's 34 provinces, and in the restive south, opium profits are helping fuel a resurgent Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgency. It is a situation eerily reminiscent of Peru in the 1980s. Maoist insurgents of the Shining Path were making inroads among Peruvian coca producers, who were being hounded by the Peruvian government at the behest of the United States. Some Peruvian generals got smart and decided to lay off the peasants, ignoring their coca cultivation in a bid to win hearts and minds. The US government got mightily pissed, but in the end, the strategy worked. The Shining Path was not able to bring the coca growers into its insurgency and eventually faded away. There is a lesson here for NATO and American war planners. You can have your war on terror or you can have your war on drugs, but it doesn't seem that you can successfully have both. It's awfully difficult to win hearts and minds when you're burning down farmers' fields and destroying their livelihoods.
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