The virtues of doing nothing: Why focusing on Afghanistan’s opium makes the opium problem worse

by Joshua Foust on 7/21/2009

Reuters has kindly allowed me to do another guest-post for them on their Pakistan blog. This time, we take a look at America’s failing counternarcotics campaign.

The blame game on opium, however, ignores a critical – and quite uncomfortable – fact: it misses the point. The reality is, while the cultivation of opium does not help matters from a Western perspective, in Afghanistan it is actually a healthy economic activity. The concerns over its cultivation, too, are overblown: even a brief look at the numbers show it to be at best a trailing indicator of insecurity, insurgency, corruption, and economic malaise. Opium, therefore, is only an indicator of other, more substantial problems…

So why not do nothing? Opium is not Afghanistan’s biggest problem – it is horrendous poverty, bad infrastructure and no security. When it comes to all three problems, Afghanistan faces two major hurdles – underinvestment (money, equipment, education, health, and security) and corruption-driven illegitimacy. Making matters worse, the overwhelming majority of aid in the country flows outside government channels or oversight, which undercuts Kabul’s legitimacy even among the people it helps.

Focusing only on opium, therefore, doesn’t actually focus on the more fundamental problems facing the country. It is an obsession on symptoms, while the causes go unaddressed.

Comments, as always, are welcome.


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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 Registan.net. 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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