The US State Department recently outlined a new strategy a few weeks ago in anticipation of the UN’s announcement of the continued growth of Afghan poppy — up by 17% percent from last years record crop and rising to account for 93% of the world’s supply. But for the most part, the proposal offers more of the same failed efforts that have placed eradication at its center. There’s even veiled hints of pursuing aerial chemical spraying, a move Afghan and European governments rightly oppose for fear it would further alienate Afghans and consolidate the Taliban’s support.
Barnett Rubin, writing at a Middle East/South Asia experts blog (stemming from Juan Cole’s Informed Comment), describes the follies of the new strategy — it misses the forest for the trees by focusing on poppy rather than drug money, which is the real strategic and governance problem hobbling American interests in Afghanistan:
On pages 13-14, the US Strategy (“Defining the Problem”) correctly diagnoses the problem as “drug money,” which “weakens key institutions and strengthens the Taliban.” But this diagnosis has consequences that the Strategy does not draw. A strategy to lessen the flow of drug money into corruption and insurgency is not identical to a strategy to reduce the quantity of addictive substances produced and exported. Once the US Strategy accurately diagnoses the problem as “drug money,” it then reverts to a nearly exclusive focus on drugs themselves, and not even on heroin, which produces much more drug money, but on poppy cultivation, which accounts for at most 20 percent of the drug economy in Afghanistan but has become the photogenic Paris Hilton of Afghan narcotics policy. This analytical flaw is the root cause of most of what I believe is wrong with this strategy.
The focus on flowers rather than drug money has led to a false comparison between northern and southern Afghanistan. U.S. officials now imply that political elites in northern Afghanistan are engaging in successful counter-narcotics, while the southern drug economy expands. This depiction has obvious ethnic implications, to the point that one government (not the U.S.) asked me to comment on whether different ethnic groups have different cultural attitudes toward opium.
The basis for these generalizations is that poppy cultivation spread into Afghanistan mainly through the Pashtun areas and that in the last year poppy cultivation has decreased in the mainly northern provinces (see the UNODC Rapid Assessment Survey map). The main reason that the drug economy expanded the most in the Pashtun areas is that traffickers shifted the cultivation to Afghanistan from Pakistan when Islamabad started to suppress it in the 1980s, and the government collapsed in Afghanistan. As a trans-border people, Pashtuns are well-organized for smuggling, whether of opium, weapons, or spare parts for trucks.
But most importantly, the map shows only the flowers. The U.S. Strategy nowhere claims, discusses, or even mentions whether “drug money” has decreased in northern Afghanistan. It has not. Balkh may be poppy-free, but its center, Mazar-i Sharif, is awash in drug money. The commanders who control Northern Afghanistan today are playing the same shell game that the Taliban did in 2000-2001. Some have suppressed cultivation (in Ghor and Bamiyan cultivation is hardly worthwhile anyway, the yields are so poor) but none have moved against trafficking. Most of them continue to profit from it, if only through what in the U.S. we would call “political contributions.”
Some of the same officials who today get credit for counter-narcotics efforts are generally believed to have become millionaires directly or indirectly from drug trafficking. Recently the nephew and right-hand man of the chief of the border police in a province colored a hopeful green in the map above was caught driving a car full of heroin north through Kabul. Why? Because there is still plenty of trafficking going through the North, and trafficking, not cultivation, is where the money is. An Afghan friend (and official of the Afghan government) told me that when he was in Bamyan recently, the north-south road by the lake at Band-i Amir was crowded like a highway with trucks taking the opium and heroin of Helmand northwards. (This is the same road that the mujahidin used to transport arms from Pakistan to northern Afghanistan in the 1980s.) The same traffic goes through Ghor, to the west. The arms traffic goes in the other direction, as northern commanders sell their Iranian weapons to dealers who re-sell them to the Taliban.
In a subsequent post, Rubin likens the administration’s counter-narcotics approach to the “shock-therapy” treatment applied to Russia and other post-Communist states after the breakup of the USSR. The analogy is actually quite fitting though the policy is not:
A counter-narcotics strategy that serves our security goals would win over the farmers and many others involved in the industry, while we and the Afghan government help them adjust to the shock of being subject to international rules, while isolating the few who wish to use illicit revenue to fund insurgency and terrorism. Instead, the administration has adopted the Afghan equivalent of “shock treatment” in the former USSR: a “War on Drugs” approach, as if it is trying to end drug addiction in the West by attacking Afghan farmers.
The comparison to post-Communist shock treatment may seem strange. But what has happened to Afghanistan is not just drugs and terrorism: for the first time in history, the Afghan peasantry has started producing a cash crop for the international market. The peasantries of other countries faced this challenge under colonialism, when they produced (or lost their land to plantations that produced) rubber, tea, coffee, indigo, sugar, cotton, tobacco, and many other products. Caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol (in the form of rum) all came to the consumers of the developed world through the same kind of transformation that is now bringing them cannabis, opiates, and cocaine, except that the latter are now considered to be illegal. Just as sudden integration with the international finance and product markets required a shocking readjustment in the former Communist countries, the move from an illicit form of export mono-culture to a licit economy requires an immense upheaval in Afghanistan. Both transitions can destroy the economic security of millions and provoke the type of backlash we now see in Russia, but with even more dangerous consequences in Afghanistan, given the presence of al-Qaida. Avoiding this backlash should dictate the pace that crop eradication plays in counter-narcotics strategy.
Despite Rubin’s sage advice, and it has been offered to the US government a number of times via Congressional testimony (see here, here, and here), the State Department’s new strategy seems to betting the house on one a one-legged horse: eradication.
The strategy paper reminds me of a Dave Chapelle show episode where the character Dylan (pronounced “Die-lawn”) poses the following question, “Who are the five best rappers of all time?” and unabashedly answers “Dylan…Dylan…Dylan, Dylan, and Dylan.”
In the State Department’s case, they repeatedly come up with eradication as the answer to the Afghan opium trade problem. The recently released US Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan states:
For 2008, one of our main objectives should be to achieve a net reduction in total opium poppy cultivation in Helmand. To achieve this, we must make immediate progress in the following five areas:
1. Make Eradication a Counternarcotics Priority
2. Encourage the GOA to Set Eradication Goals for 2008
3. Encourage the GOA to Employ Non-Negotiated Methods of Forced Eradication
–Encourage the GOA to consider the use of force-protected GBS eradication in 2008, particularly in insecure areas.
–Make available to the GOA the tremendous amount of research done on health, safety, and environmental concerns about glyphosate.
But wait, there’s so much more:
4. Improve the Good Performers Initiative (GPI)
–To date, rewards under the Good Performers Initiative have only been disbursed to poppy-free provinces, which have each received $500,000 for achieving poppy-free status as defined by a confirmed crop of less than 100 vestigial hectares. To incentivize poppy reduction in high-concern provinces such as Helmand, the USG and GOA will announce an expanded Good Performers Initiative before the 2007 planting season that will reward poppy reduction in all provinces, and offer special performance incentives for high-concern provinces that stabilize or reverse cultivation trends through aggressive governor-led action.
[Translation: The program will incent well-heeled governors to pursue poppy eradication at the expense of farmers but do nothing to stop trafficking which is far more profitable.]
5. Improve CN-COIN Public Information
–The USG will develop and implement an action plan to improve coordination of message delivery on the CN-COIN nexus in Afghanistan.
[Translation: We’ll borrow Karen Hughes to convince farmers that eradication of poppy–often their only means of subsistence–is actually in their best interest.]
Over the past three years Afghan poppy cultivation and its share of the opium trade continue to rise and each year US officials promise increased eradication efforts will mop up the problem. But with three years of failure and a wealth of research by narco-terrorism experts like Vanda Felbab-Brown revealing the consistent, empirical failure of the eradication-first strategy, I think it’s more likely that Dylan is the best rapper of all time.