Clashing Over Counternarcotics Policies

by Joshua Foust on 6/30/2009 · 1 comment

In the war on opium, this site has been consistent on one point, and pretty consistent on another. The first point is that the current regime of eradication is ill-conceived on so many levels it becomes difficult to discuss: eradication ignores the economic, social, political, and security considerations that go into planting poppies, all in favor of a view, formed 8,000 miles away, that destroying the crop is better than all the many negative secondary effects that will befall Afghanistan.

The latter is over methods: in 2007, we mostly shifted from favoring legalization to realizing legalization requires a substantial amount of institutional support that simply doesn’t exist. So, if eradicating opium crops is a bad idea, and partial legalization is (at best) years away, what remains? How about doing nothing? This idea is based on the reasoning that, since cultivating opium is a symptom, not a cause of anything—even if some portion of the opium economy goes to fund some of the insurgency—that addressing those causes will better address the symptom of cultivation.

Anyway, so no government on earth has even approached that policy… until now.

Washington is to dramatically overhaul its Afghan anti-drug strategy, phasing out opium poppy eradication, the U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan told allies on Saturday.

Richard Holbrooke, attending a G8 conference on stabilising Afghanistan, also discussed efforts to support its Aug. 20 election. Washington has nearly doubled its troops to combat a growing Taliban insurgency and provide security for the vote.

“The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work,” Holbrooke told Reuters after a series of bilateral meetings in Italy.

While a simplification—eradication does far more harm than simple unemployment—the change is course is very welcome. If the U.S. chooses to focus it’s counternarcotics policy on a) actually protecting the population by setting up security outposts in communities and reducing the number of permanent troops on the big bases; b) developing local infrastructure and political ties so that the export of legitimate crops becomes the realistic and ideal option it was in the 1970s; and c) developing local economic institutions such that farmers don’t have to use Opium traffickers for micro-credit, then there would be dramatic improvement in the narco-regions of Afghanistan.

Of course, there will be resistance to such a plan. For one, it’s not as clear-cut as Holbrooke makes it out to be. “We are not going to support crop eradication. We’re going to phase it out,” he says, in favor of interdicting the precursor chemicals and harvested product, and “going after” the drug lords. Being that direct is certain to generate a fearsome, violent response: and if Columbia is any indication (God knows enough officials think turning Kabul into Bogota is a swell idea), this new policy also presents a very real chance of being worse off than the current policy—since, in limited cases, eradication will still occur. What are those limited cases? Eradication is already kind of limited, and violently unpopular.

Then there are the Brits, who have a strong presence in Helmand. What do they think?

The British Government said destroying poppy fields remained a key deterrent to growers and one of the “seven pillars” of its anti-opium strategy in Helmand province, just a day after Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Afghanistan, said that destroying the crop only drove poor farmers to join the insurgency…

International governments have repeatedly disagreed on how to tackle Afghanistan’s rampant opium business which supplies more than 90 per cent of the world’s heroin and feeds hundreds of millions of dollars to insurgent fighters.

Britain and other Nato allies strongly opposed former US plans to destroy poppies with crop-spraying planes saying it would only strengthen the increasing insurgency…

British officials denied there was tension with the US over the policy change and said the detail had not been decided.

Well, the detail is always where the devil resides, isn’t it? If the Brits are against aerial spraying, that probably means they favor manual eradication with bulldozers and flamethrowers—the most personally risky form of it. And will a farmer really become less hostile to the Coalition if his livelihood, and his ability to pay back his salam loan that year, is destroyed by a guy in a tractor rather than by a DynCorp plane?

It’s also important to think of the Afghan government—you remember, that thing the U.S. keeps saying it is supporting and trying to legitimize?—in all of this. Let’s ask the Minister of Counternarcotics:

Afghanistan’s counternarcotics minister says his country’s drug policy is “perfect.”

Gen. Khodaidad said Sunday that Afghanistan has achieved “a lot of success” with its anti-drug strategy — which relies heavily on manual eradication of opium poppy fields… he says there is no “deficiency” in the Afghan strategy.

Well, what does he know anyway. Besides, his job is heavily reliant upon the DEA giving him dollars and gadgets to fight drugs—what else could he say?

Even so, the clash between American, British, and Afghan priorities is worth watching. Since it’s America and they remain the big kid on the block, they’ll get their (finally slightly more sensible) way. But how that plays out in the other agencies that must prosecute it is another matter entirely.

And fighting a war on drugs by committee with no plan? Who the hell ever thought that was a good idea?

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

Forrest Brown June 30, 2009 at 10:31 pm

A while ago you linked to a WaPo article ( that mentioned the comparative viability of pomegranates, almonds, pistachios, raisins and fruits to both wheat and opium. Is there any indication that USAID is willing to reverse its earlier ideological opposition to agricultural subsidies? Perhaps more importantly, any chance the fundamental flaws such as the reliance on inefficient contractors like Chemonics / ideas from Colombia are resolved? It seems to me without resolving at least the second group of issues, and possibly the consideration of ag subsidies that Afghanistan’s non-opium economy cannot get off the ground.

Tangentially, Al-Jazeera spoke with the first farmer to create a major saffron farm. Is that a viable crop for at least some percentage of current opium growers?

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