New York Times
August 26, 2007
LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan, Aug. 25 — Afghanistan produced record levels of opium in 2007 for the second straight year, led by a staggering 45 percent increase in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand Province, according to a new United Nations survey to be released Monday.
The report is likely to touch off renewed debate about the United States’ $600 million counternarcotics program in Afghanistan, which has been hampered by security challenges and endemic corruption within the Afghan government.
“I think it is safe to say that we should be looking for a new strategy,” said William B. Wood, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, commenting on the report’s overall findings. “And I think that we are finding one.”
Mr. Wood said the current American programs for eradication, interdiction and alternative livelihoods should be intensified, but he added that ground spraying poppy crops with herbicide remained “a possibility.” Afghan and British officials have opposed spraying, saying it would drive farmers into the arms of the Taliban.
While the report found that opium production dropped in northern Afghanistan, Western officials familiar with the assessment said, cultivation rose in the south, where Taliban insurgents urge farmers to grow poppies.
Although common farmers make comparatively little from the trade, opium is a major source of financing for the Taliban, who gain public support by protecting farmers’ fields from eradication, according to American officials. They also receive a cut of the trade from traffickers they protect.
In Taliban-controlled areas, traffickers have opened more labs that process raw opium into heroin, vastly increasing its value. The number of drug labs in Helmand rose to roughly 50 from 30 the year before, and about 16 metric tons of chemicals used in heroin production have been confiscated this year.
The Western officials said countrywide production had increased from 2006 to 2007, but they did not know the final United Nations figure. They estimated a countrywide increase of 10 to 30 percent.
The new survey showed positive signs as well, officials said.
The sharp drop in poppy production in the north is likely to make this year’s countrywide increase smaller than the growth in 2006. Last year, a 160 percent increase in Helmand’s opium crop fueled a 50 percent nationwide increase. Afghanistan produced a record 6,100 metric tons of opium poppies last year, 92 percent of the world’s supply.
Here in Helmand, the breadth of the poppy trade is staggering. A sparsely populated desert province twice the size of Maryland, Helmand produces more narcotics than any country on earth, including Myanmar, Morocco and Colombia. Rampant poverty, corruption among local officials, a Taliban resurgence and spreading lawlessness have turned the province into a narcotics juggernaut.
Poppy prices that are 10 times higher than those for wheat have so warped the local economy that some farmhands refused to take jobs harvesting legal crops this year, local farmers said. And farmers dismiss the threat of eradication, arguing that so many local officials are involved in the poppy trade that a significant clearing of crops will never be done.
American and British officials say they have a long-term strategy to curb poppy production. About 7,000 British troops and Afghan security forces are gradually extending the government’s authority in some areas, they said. The British government is spending $60 million to promote legal crops in the province, and the United States Agency for International Development is mounting a $160 million alternative livelihoods program across southern Afghanistan, most of it in Helmand.
Loren Stoddard, director of the aid agency’s agriculture program in Afghanistan, cited American-financed agricultural fairs, the introduction of high-paying legal crops and the planned construction of a new industrial park and airport as evidence that alternatives were being created.
Mr. Stoddard, who helped Wal-Mart move into Central America in his previous posting, predicted that poppy production had become so prolific that the opium market was flooded and prices were starting to drop. “It seems likely they’ll have a rough year this year,” he said, referring to the poppy farmers. “Labor prices are up and poppy prices are down. I think they’re going to be looking for new things.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Stoddard and Rory Donohoe, the director of the American development agency’s Alternative Livelihoods program in southern Afghanistan, attended the first “Helmand Agricultural Festival.” The $300,000 American-financed gathering in Lashkar Gah was an odd cross between a Midwestern county fair and a Central Asian bazaar, devised to show Afghans an alternative to poppies.
Under a scorching sun, thousands of Afghan men meandered among booths describing fish farms, the dairy business and drip-irrigation systems. A generator, cow and goat were raffled off. Wizened elders sat on carpets and sipped green tea. Some wealthy farmers seemed interested. Others seemed keen to attend what they saw as a picnic.
When Mr. Stoddard and Mr. Donohoe arrived, they walked through the festival surrounded by a three-man British and Australian security team armed with assault rifles. “Who won the cow? Who won the cow?” shouted Mr. Stoddard, 38, a burly former food broker from Provo, Utah. “Was it a girl or a guy?”
After Afghans began dancing to traditional drum and flute music, Mr. Donohoe, 29, from San Francisco, briefly joined them.
Some Afghans praised the fair’s alternatives crops. Others said only the rich could afford them. Haji Abdul Gafar, 28, a wealthy landowner, expressed interest in some of the new ideas.
Saber Gul, a 40-year-old laborer, said he was too poor to take advantage. “For those who have livestock and land, they can,” he said. “For us, the poor people, there is nothing.”
Local officials said all the development programs would fail without improved security.
Assadullah Wafa, Helmand’s governor, said four of Helmand’s 13 districts were under Taliban control. Other officials put the number at six.
Mr. Wafa, who eradicated far fewer acres than the governor of neighboring Kandahar Province, promised to improve eradication in Helmand next year. He also called for Western countries to decrease the demand for heroin.
“The world is focusing on the production side, not the buying side,” he said.
The day after the agricultural fair, Mr. Stoddard and Mr. Donohoe gave a tour of a $3 million American project to clear a former Soviet airbase on the outskirts of town and turn it into an industrial park and civilian airport.
Standing near rusting Soviet fuel tanks, the two men described how pomegranates, a delicacy in Helmand for centuries, would be flown out to growing markets in India and Dubai. Animal feed would be produced from a local mill, marble cut and polished for construction.
“Once we get this air cargo thing going,” Mr. Stoddard said, “it will open up the whole south.”
That afternoon, they showed off a pilot program for growing chili peppers on contract for a company in Dubai. “These kinds of partnerships with private companies are what we want here,” said Mr. Donohoe, who has a Master’s in Business Administration from Georgetown University. “We’ll let the market drive it.”
As the Americans toured the farm, they were guarded by eight Afghans and three British and Australian guards. The farm itself had received guards after local villagers began sneaking in at night and stealing produce. Twenty-four hours a day, 24 Afghan men with assault rifles staff six guard posts that ring the farm, safeguarding chili peppers and other produce.
“Some people would say that security is so bad that you can’t do anything,” Mr. Donohoe said. “But we do it.”
Mr. Wafa, though, called the American reconstruction effort too small and “low quality.”
“There is a proverb in Afghanistan,” he said. “By one flower we cannot mark spring.”
October 31, 2006
Things are not going well in Afghanistan. In a stunning admission that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent trying to eradicate the country's opium crop had accomplished little, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced Saturday that this year's Afghan opium crop is up a "staggering" 60% over last year and will yield a record 6,100 tons this year, leading to a global surplus in black market heroin.
Opium is the backbone of the Afghan economy, accounting for somewhere between 35% and 50% of gross national product, and Afghan opium is the backbone of the global traffic in narcotics, now accounting for 92% of total illicit global production, according to UNODC.
Meanwhile, US soldiers and NATO forces, who took over operations in the restive south of the country earlier this year, are being killed at a record pace as Taliban and Al Qaeda rebels reinvigorated by profits from the opium trade are taking the battle to the foreigners and the government they prop up. And in a reflection of the increased NATO role, for the first time, NATO casualties are keeping pace with American casualties. In what is turning into the bloodiest year so far for Afghanistan's occupiers, 73 NATO troops and 74 American soldiers have been killed so far. Last year, the second bloodiest since the US invasion nearly five years ago, 99 US and 31 NATO troops were killed in fighting.
"The news is very bad. On the opium front today in some of the provinces of Afghanistan, we face a state of emergency," UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa told a Kabul news conference after presenting results of its crop survey to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "In the southern provinces, the situation is out of control."
In southern Helmand province, now a hotbed of Taliban activity, cultivation rose by a whopping 162% and accounts for 42% of total Afghan opium cultivation, the UNODC said. Costa told the Kabul news conference that NATO must step up its role in fighting the opium trade, especially in the south, where it is helping to fuel the Taliban insurgency.
"We need much stronger, forceful measures to improve security or otherwise I'm afraid we are going to face a dramatic situation of failed regions, districts and even perhaps even provinces in the near future," Costa said.
But while NATO commanders late this week called urgently for more troops on the ground in the south, they have little interest in fighting the drug war. NATO's official position is that its mandate is for stability and peace-keeping, not counternarcotics.
Still, there is pressure from the Americans and the British to try to wage both the war on terror and the war on drugs simultaneously. The top American anti-drug official in Afghanistan, Doug Wankel, told the press conference the need was urgent. "This country could be taken down by this whole drugs problem," he told reporters. "We have seen what can come from Afghanistan, if you go back to 9/11. Obviously the US does not want to see that again."
But analysts consulted by Drug War Chronicle warned that attempting to quash the opium economy and fight the Taliban at the same time is a recipe for disaster. "Paradoxically, the more they go after opium production, the more they strengthen the bond between the Taliban and the population and the traffickers," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government Affairs. "It is a difficult conundrum. There can be no fundamental progress on either the narcotics problem or stabilization in general unless we deal with the insurgency," she told the Chronicle.
"The Taliban have now once again become integrated into production in the south," Felbab-Brown explained. "After 2001, they were pretty much forced out of the drug trade because they were fleeing and because the US and coalition forces were not going after drug trafficking. But now, the traffickers need someone to protect them, to scare off the eradication teams and the state presence, and the Taliban is providing this protection. It is also exploiting the eradication effort," the expert on illicit drugs and military conflict said. "They are handing out leaflets saying things like 'We are the Taliban. Isn't it awful that Karzai under the pressure of the foreign infidels is trying to destroy our crops. Here's our cell phone number. Give us a call.' So now, the Taliban is not only profiting financially, it is also gaining the allegiance of the population by providing protection."
"Things are a bit out of control because so many things happening in Iraq and the Middle East keep the superpowers' eyes off of Afghanistan, so the intruders have more opportunities to accelerate their destruction and illegal activities," said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "At the same time, the coalition and the Karzai government are too busy fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda to concentrate on eradication," he told the Chronicle.
"The Taliban is moving into the areas where there is drug cultivation, and they receive support from farmers who have had their crops destroyed or threatened," Yaseer continued. "Thus, the traffickers and growers have a bit more freedom than usual. That's why business is booming for the drug dealers. There are too many fronts to deal with, and eradication is just one front."
Solutions are hard to come by. "Nobody knows what the answer is," Yaseer conceded. "Out of those billions of dollars they are spending, they need to use some to compensate farmers and create other jobs and projects. People in the provinces are unemployed and hungry, and the terrorists offer them money to join them. People turn to the Taliban and the terrorists and the drug dealers because that's where the money is. The government and the coalition cannot compete with the money drug dealers offer. It doesn't help that there is such nepotism and involvement of high level officials in the trade. That only makes it all the more difficult to enforce the drug laws. Many government officials are supporting the trade, not fighting it."
"There is no doubt lots of government officials are complicit in the trade, but focusing on individuals is a mistake," noted Felbab-Brown. "This isn't about individuals, but about deep structural factors like the lack of stability, security, and economic development. Whoever is in power, whether honest or corrupt, will have to contend with these issues. The honest ones will confront the fact that there is nothing but poppy-growing for much of the population. The only way they can do eradication now is at gunpoint, and that is not the way to carry out a legitimate, widely-embraced policy. Forced eradication generates instability and opposition from the people, and ambitious politicians in the south will link up with the Taliban."
For Felbab-Brown, it comes down to doing counterinsurgency right. "It is critical to increase the number of forces, to increase the troop presence and the delivery of aid," she said. "It's difficult to deliver aid during an active insurgency, but it is vital. But we also need patience, especially on the narcotics issue. The big pressure for premature eradication coming from Washington and international organizations needs to be resisted. We need more money, more troops, more development. Is this international community willing to provide these resources?"
Being patient with the opium economy is getting closer to the correct approach, said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign affairs and drug policy analyst with the libertarian leaning Cato Institute. "The only solution is one that no one in any position of influence in Washington or the NATO capitals will consider -- drug legalization," he told Drug War Chronicle. "That would take the black market profits out of the drug trade. It is the ultimate solution. If they won't consider legalization, the very least they can do is look the other way with regard to the drug trade. That worked in Peru in the 1980s, when the Peruvian generals figured out that leaving the coca crop alone dried up support for the Shining Path. Something similar needs to occur in Afghanistan, whether they admit it or not. If they are serious about preventing a further rebound of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they need to lay off the drug war."
Trying to wage both the war on terror and the war on drugs undermines US policy in the country, Carpenter argued. "There is a fundamental inconsistency in the US nation-building strategy in Afghanistan. The primary goal remains to undermine the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but the problem is if they go after the drug trade, they alienate a major portion of the population and strengthen support for the Taliban. Even trying to prosecute the war on drugs there undermines the primary US goal in Afghanistan."
One European defense and development group, the Senlis Council, has proposed for nearly a year now that the Afghan opium crop be licensed, legalized, and diverted to the legitimate medicinal market. Senlis was harshly critical of Western policy this week.
"Huge amounts of money have been spent on large and costly military operations, but after five years southern Afghanistan is once more a battlefield for the control of the country," said Senlis executive director Emmanuel Reinert as he announced the publication of a new report on the rebirth of the Taliban. "At the same time Afghans are starving. The US has lost control in Afghanistan and has in many ways undercut the new democracy in Afghanistan. I think we can call that a failure, and one with dire consequences which should concern us all. The US policies in Afghanistan have re-created the safe-haven for terrorism that the 2001 invasion aimed to destroy."
But the Senlis licensing proposal is getting little respect or traction and is unlikely to prevail, said Yaseer. "I don't think the Senlis Council proposal will get very far," said Yaseer. "There is all kinds of opposition to any legalization. The religious groups will not support it, the legislators will not support it. There are also serious questions about whether it would just open up more venues for growing and trafficking."
Questions, questions. There are lots of questions in Afghanistan, but few good answers.
What Are They Smoking?
The Bush War on Afghan Drugs
Ann Jones; TomDispatch
October 30, 2006
On the fifth anniversary of the start of the Bush administration's Afghan War, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld wrote an upbeat op-ed in the Washington Post on that hapless country's "hopeful and promising" trajectory. He cited only two items as less than "encouraging": "the legitimate worry that increased poppy production could be a destabilizing factor" and the "rising violence in southern Afghanistan."
That rising violence -- a full scale onslaught by the resurgent Taliban -- put Afghanistan back in the headlines this summer and brought consternation to NATO governments (from Canada to Australia) whose soldiers are now dying in a land they had been led to believe was a peaceful "success story." Lt. General David Richards, the British commander of NATO troops that took over security in embattled southern Afghanistan from the U.S. in July, warned at the time, "We could actually fail here." In October, he argued that if NATO did not bring security and significant reconstruction to the alienated Pashtun south within six months -- the mission the U.S. failed to accomplish during the past five years -- the majority of the populace might well switch sympathies to the Taliban.
But coming in the midst of NATO anxieties and Taliban assaults, what are we to make of Rumsfeld's "legitimate worry" about Afghan poppy production which this year will provide 92% of the world's heroin supply? And what are we to make of George W. Bush's Presidential Determination, issued just before Afghan President Hamid Karzai's September visit to Washington, that the Afghan government must be "held accountable" for that poppy harvest; that it must not only "deter and eradicate poppy cultivation" in the country, but "investigate, prosecute, and extradite all the narcotraffickers" in the land?
Undeniably, the poppy trade and the resurgence of the Taliban are intimately connected, for the Taliban, who briefly banned poppy cultivation in 2000 in an effort to gain U.S. diplomatic recognition and aid, now both support and draw support from that profitable crop. Yet Western policies aimed at the Taliban and the poppy are quite separate and at odds with each other. While NATO troops scramble, between battles, to rebuild rural infrastructure, U.S. advisers urge Afghan anti-narcotics police to eradicate the livelihood of two million poor farmers.
So far the poppy-eradication program, largely funded by the U.S., hasn't made a dent. Last year, it claimed to have destroyed 38,000 acres of poppies, up from 12,000 the year before; but during the same period overall poppy cultivation soared from 104,000 hectares to 165,000 hectares (or 408,000 acres).
When the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, poppies were grown on only 7,600 hectares. Under the American occupation that followed the defeat of the Taliban, poppy cultivation spread to every province, and overall production has increased exponentially ever since -- this year by 60%.
Still, the counterproductive eradication program succeeds in one thing. It makes life miserable for hundreds of thousands of small farmers. What happens to them? The Senlis Council, an international drug-policy think tank, reports that the drug eradication program not only ruins small farmers but actually drives them into the arms of the Taliban who offer them loans, protection, and a chance to plant again. Big farmers, on the other hand, are undeterred by the poppy eradication program; they simply pay off the police and associated officials, spreading corruption and dashing hopes of honest government.
In 2002, President Bush announced, "We must reduce drug use for one great moral reason. When we fight against drugs, we fight for the souls of our fellow Americans." There's a profusion of ironies here. The U.S. in the 1980s fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union on Afghan soil, encouraging Islamist extremists (then "our" soldiers) and helping to set the stage for the Taliban. Now, another Republican administration sets Afghan against Afghan again in a kind of cockamamie proxy war supposedly for the souls of American heroin addicts. Since when have Republicans wanted to do anything for American drug addicts but lock them up?
This is the kind of weird "foreign policy" you get when your base is keen on the War on Drugs and there's a lot of real stuff you can't talk about outside the Oval Office -- or, sometimes, in it. Like, to take an example, the way the Taliban now control the Pakistani border city of Quetta, a subject that went politely unmentioned recently when Bush entertained Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Afghanistan's Karzai at the White House. Like the way that Pakistan reluctantly hands over some al-Qaeda operatives to the U.S., but winks at routine Taliban cross-border traffic into Afghanistan. It also makes deals with Talibanized elders in its own tribal area of Waziristan, long thought to be a haven for Al Qaeda and perhaps Osama bin Laden himself. Like the fact that no nation fights harder against the Afghan drug trade than our axis-of-evil enemy Iran, while our "staunch ally" Pakistan lends support to the trade and to the Taliban as well.
If we must worry about poppy production while all hell breaks loose in south Afghanistan and suicide bombers strike Kabul, the capital, is there a more "legitimate" or effective way to worry?
A Blooming Business
First, we can forget entirely any concern for American heroin addicts. It's been exactly 100 years since public officials first met in London to ban the international trade in opium. A century of cracking down on poppy production from Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle to Central Asia's Golden Crescent to Mexico has verified one basic fact of agricultural economics. When supply is cut somewhere, another poppy-growing area quickly arises to meet the demand. Wipe out poppies in Afghanistan tomorrow and -– faster than you can say "mission accomplished" -- American addicts will be shooting up heroin from Pakistan or Thailand or the moon. This is a fact certain.
But none of that phony compassion for America's drug addicts factors into Rumsfeld's "legitimate worry." He's concerned about the "destabilizing" effect of the drug trade itself -- on the Karzai government, Afghanistan, and the Central Asian region.
Paradoxically many a man on the street in Kabul points to poppy as the source of jobs, wealth, hope, and such stability as President Karzai currently enjoys. Karzai himself often promises to rid government and country of drug lords, but as a Pashtun and a realist, he keeps his enemies close. His strategy is to avoid confrontation, befriend potential adversaries, and give them offices, often in his cabinet.
Like Musharraf in Pakistan, Karzai walks a tightrope between domestic politics and American demands for dramatic actions -– such as ending the drug trade -- clearly well beyond his powers. The trade penetrates even the elected Parliament which is full of the usual suspects. Among the 249 members of the Wolesi Jirga (lower house) are at least 17 known drug traffickers in addition to 40 commanders of armed militias, 24 members of criminal gangs, and 19 men facing serious allegations of war crimes and human rights violations, any or all of whom may be affiliated with the poppy business. For years the Kabul rumor mill has traced the drug trade to the family of the President himself.
Through many administrations, the U.S. government is itself implicated in the Afghan drug trade. During the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, the CIA fostered anti-Soviet Islamist extremists, and to finance their covert operations, it fostered the drug trade as well. Before the American and Pakistani-sponsored mujahidin took on the Soviets in 1979, Afghanistan produced only a very small amount of opium for regional markets, and no heroin at all. By the end of the jihad against the Soviet army of occupation, it was the world's top producer of both drugs. As Alfred W. McCoy reports in The Politics of Heroin, Afghan mujahidin -- the guys President Ronald Reagan famously likened to "our founding fathers" -- ordered Afghan farmers to grow poppy; Afghan commanders and Pakistani intelligence agents refined heroin; the Pakistani army transported it to Karachi for shipment overseas; while the CIA made it all possible by providing legal cover for these operations.
After the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the Bush administration made use of our old Islamist allies, paying them millions of dollars to hunt Osama bin Laden, a task to which they do not appear to have been entirely devoted. Asked in 2004 why the U.S. wasn't going after drug kingpins in Afghanistan, an unnamed U.S. official told a New York Times reporter that the drug lords were "the guys who helped us liberate this place in 2001," the guys we were still relying on to get bin Laden. Interviewed by the British Independent, a U.S. soldier offered another reason: "We start taking out drug guys, and they will start taking out our guys." Reluctant to interfere with our drug-lord allies in the Global War on Terror or risk the lives of U.S. soldiers in such a dustup, the Bush administration went after small farmers instead.
Early on, the British, who were responsible for international anti-narcotics operations in Afghanistan, tried to persuade Afghan farmers to take up "alternative livelihoods" -- that is, to grow other crops -- even though no other crop requires less work or produces a fraction of the profits of poppy. Not that the farmers themselves get rich. Within Afghanistan, where perhaps 3 million people draw direct income from poppy, profits may reach $3 billion this year; but international traffickers in the global marketplace will make ten times as much, at the very least.
The small percentage of profit that stays in Afghanistan enriches mainly the kingpins: warlords, government officials, politically connected smugglers. But as drug lords build mansions in Kabul -- ornate "Pakistani Palaces" of garish tile and colored glass -- they create jobs and a booming trade in all sorts of legal goods from cement to pots and pans. What's more, that small in-country profit adds up to an estimated 60% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, or more than half the country's annual income. It's also more than twice as much as the U.S. designated in the last five years for Afghan reconstruction, most of which never reached the country anyway.
You have to ask: what if the drug trade could be stopped? What about the destabilizing effect of that?
Fear of Flowers
As things stand, the poppy farmer makes a decent living. Poppies enable him to hold on to his scrap of land. He can feed his family and send his children to school. Nevertheless, two years ago some poppy farmers in Nangahar province were actually persuaded to give up poppy for tomatoes. They were pressured by an aggressive American campaign of defoliant aerial spraying of poppy fields that killed poppies and sickened children and livestock. The U.S. still denies responsibility for that episode and similar aerial attacks that devastated livestock in Helmand province in February 2005.
When word came that the Holy Koran had been dumped in a Guantanamo toilet, Nangahar farmers were among the furious Afghans who rioted in Jalalabad. For them the desecration of the Koran was the last straw. They were already furious about the tomatoes. They'd harvested good crops, then watched them rot because a promised bridge they needed to get their tomatoes to market hadn't been built. Remarkably the Nangahar farmers still gave "alternative livelihoods" one more try, but they made too little money to feed their children. This year they announced they're planting poppies again.
A field of poppies in bloom is a beautiful sight -- especially in Afghanistan where the plant's brilliant greenery and its white and purplish flowers stand against a drab landscape of rock and sand, visual testimony to the promise of human endeavor even in the worst of circumstances. It may be that Afghan farmers contemplate their fields as metaphor, Afghans being great lovers of poetry. But they're practical and desperate as well, so they came up with a plan.
Afghan farmers officially proposed to British anti-narcotics officials that they be licensed to grow poppy and produce opium for state-owned refineries to be built with foreign aid donations. The refineries, in turn, would produce medicinal morphine and codeine for worldwide legal sale, thereby filling a global need for inexpensive, natural pain killers. (Recently hospitalized in the U.S., I can testify that morphine works exceedingly well, though it's expensive because, unlike heroin, it's in short supply.)
The farmers got nowhere with this proposal, although it's hard to think of any plan that could more effectively have bound the rural peasantry to Karzai's feeble central government, stabilizing and strengthening it. Now, the Senlis Council has proposed the same plan, but again it's unlikely to fly. It's not just that Big Pharma would resent the competition. Think about the Republican base for which "legal drug" is an oxymoron.
In November 2004, in fact, George W. Bush, backed by the civilian leadership of the Pentagon and powerful Republican Congressmen like Henry Hyde of Illinois, suddenly increased U.S. funds committed to the conventional Afghan war on drugs sixfold to $780 million, including $150 million designated for aerial spraying. Hyde, still on the case as chair of the House Committee on International Relations, recently suggested shifting the focus from farmers to "kingpins," but no one in the administration is ready to call off the war.
Two years ago in Kabul I interviewed an American consultant sent by the administration to assess the "drug problem" in Afghanistan. His off-the-record verdict: "The only sensible way out is to legalize drugs. But nobody in the White House wants to hear that." He admitted that the sensible conclusion would not appear in his report.
So you see what I mean about the weird policies a government such as ours can develop when it can't talk about real facts. When it cozies up to people it professes to be against. When it attacks people whose hearts and minds it hopes to win. When it pays experts to report false conclusions it wants to hear. When it spends billions to tear down the lives of poor Afghans even as our NATO allies pray for a break in battling the Taliban so that -- with time running out -- they can rebuild.
Ann Jones spent the better part of the last four years in Afghanistan, working on education and women's rights -- and watching. She wrote about what she saw in Kabul in Winter: Life Without Peace in Afghanistan (Metropolitan Books, 2006).
[This article first appeared on Tomdispatch.com, a weblog of the Nation Institute, which offers a steady flow of alternate sources, news, and opinion from Tom Engelhardt, long time editor in publishing, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, and in the fall, Mission Unaccomplished (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.]
Post-Invasion Chaos Blamed for Drug Surge
Afghanistan's opium poppy crop is at a record level. Trafficking and use are rising in Iraq.
By T. Christian Miller
Los Angeles Times
October 4, 2004
WASHINGTON — Afghanistan's opium poppy crop this year is set to break all records, surging past the peak levels reported under the Taliban regime, top American and international counter-narcotics officials said.
At the same time, U.N. and U.S. officials are increasingly worried by signs of a nascent drug trade developing in Iraq, where smugglers are taking advantage of the continuing chaos and unguarded borders.
Instability in the wake of the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has resulted in one booming market for the production of drugs, and a second potential market for narcotics sale and transit, officials said.
"All post-conflict situations, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, are always characterized by a significant increase in addiction," said Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the United Nations' Office on Drug and Crimes. "The problem is definitely there."
In testimony last month, Robert B. Charles, the assistant secretary who heads the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told Congress that CIA figures, expected to be released in a matter of weeks, show Afghanistan's opium poppy cultivation approaching 250,000 acres, up more than 60% from the 2003 level.
In an interview late last week, Charles acknowledged that the cultivation levels apparently exceed even the previous record of about 160,000 acres of opium poppy, reached in 2000. The Taliban was aggressively promoting the crop at the time to finance military operations but banned it later that year, citing religious reasons.
Afghanistan is already the world's leading supplier of opium, which can be processed into a variety of narcotics, including heroin. Most of Afghanistan's heroin is exported to Europe and surrounding countries; less than 10% reaches the U.S. Charles said that although there was growing momentum behind efforts to halt production, the U.S. continued to fear the development of a narco-economy that could swamp Afghanistan's nascent democracy.
"There is a dark shadow that hangs over the country," Charles said. "If we don't do the right thing about tackling this potentially damaging heroin economy, we're certainly all going to regret it."
The country's exploding drug production has already become an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. In Thursday's debate in Florida, Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry cited the burgeoning opium poppy crop as evidence of President Bush's "colossal misjudgment" in turning his attention from Afghanistan to wage war in Iraq.
Repeating a U.N. estimate, Kerry said heroin production represents between 40% and 60% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. The U.N. and the Economist magazine's Intelligence Unit have estimated that the value of last year's heroin and opium production in Afghanistan ranged from $1 billion to as much as $2.3 billion — equivalent to the whole aid package pledged by the U.S. at a March donor's conference in Berlin.
"Iraq is not even the center of the focus of the war on terror; the center is Afghanistan," Kerry said.
Indeed, U.S., U.N. and Afghan officials believe that opium smuggling is a source of funding for Taliban insurgents, Al Qaeda terrorists and criminal gangs operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Much of the opium is exported through the lawless border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan where Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding, officials said. Insurgents encourage small farmers in areas they control to grow the drug, and charge a tax on it for transportation.
During a surprise visit to Afghanistan in August, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld described the drug boom as one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan's democracy, which is preparing for presidential elections Saturday.
"To the extent the demand for drugs continues to produce hundreds of millions of dollars for revenue to … criminals engaged in the drug-trafficking trade, it is harmful," Rumsfeld said. "We see what happens in countries where that takes place. It's corrosive. It can affect the entire political process. It leads to other types of crime and corruption. It is a very dangerous thing." So far, efforts to stem the production boom have been ineffectual. The British have taken the lead in Afghanistan in eradication efforts, and seized some 34 tons of opiates this year — about 1% of the estimated production.
Efforts by Afghan and coalition forces to convince farmers to give up growing poppy plants also have yielded few results. In a country whose economy remains a shambles, the crop represents one of the few profitable enterprises.
The U.S. has cited Colombia, where leftist guerrillas and right-wing militants also have traded in narcotics to fund their operations, as a model for drug reduction efforts. Coca production is down 21% in Colombia, which remains the single largest source of cocaine consumed in the United States. The U.S. has poured more than $3 billion into Colombia's drug eradication effort, the key component of which is an aggressive aerial fumigation campaign. There are no such efforts underway in Afghanistan.
"Very little has been done effectively to stop" opium cultivation in Afghanistan, said Bathsheba Crocker, a scholar at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who has followed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. "There's not been anywhere near as serious or robust an effort as there should have been." In Iraq, meanwhile, both the U.N. and U.S. officials are concerned about recent anecdotal evidence of an increase in drug trafficking and consumption. Iraq is believed to have been relatively drug-free under Saddam Hussein's rule.
State Department counter-narcotics experts believe Syrian traffickers are making use of Iraq's poorly guarded borders to transport fenethylline, a synthetic drug more commonly known as Captagon that is similar to amphetamine.
The drug is a favorite among the wealthy party crowd in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.
Troops from the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division recently encountered a "large" amount of drugs and drug paraphernalia during raids against insurgents in north-central Iraq, said Master Sgt. Robert Powell, a spokesman for the unit. He said details of the raid were not immediately available.
Costa, the U.N. official, said his investigators had detected signs of drug trafficking in Iraq last year, during a visit shortly before the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003.
A decade of sanctions had created a vast network of smugglers in Iraq who sold oil on the world market. After the U.S. invasion, however, oil exports became legal and thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of people involved in smuggling rings suddenly found themselves out of work, Costa said. Many, it is believed, have turned their skills toward transporting other illicit substances.
"It's not only drugs. We're talking about arms smuggling, artifacts, looted goods," said Mustafa Alani, the head of security and terrorism studies for the Gulf Research Center, a think tank in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "There is no control of the borders." The effort to combat drugs in Iraq is all but nonexistent, with both U.S. and Iraqi efforts focused on controlling the insurgency.
So far, a handful of Iraqi police officers has received counter-narcotics training. The State Department has five drug experts in Iraq, but their mission is only partially focused on trafficking. And the military does not consider counter-narcotics a part of its mission in Iraq, a Pentagon spokesman said.
So far, Iraq's drug trade is limited, but it has few law enforcement barriers to keep it from growing.
"We have to keep our eye on it," said Charles, the State Department official. "It has the potential to become a much larger problem."
The war on poppies
U.S. efforts to eradicate Afghanistan's crop are empowering the Taliban by sowing seeds of resentment.
Peter Bergen and Sameer Lalwani
Los Angeles Times
September 2, 2007
Stepping onto the balcony of the governor's mansion in Uruzgan in southern Afghanistan, you quickly grasp the scale of the drug problem gripping the country. Beginning at the walls of the mansion and stretching as far as the eye can see are hundreds of acres of poppy fields ready for harvesting for opium sap, pretty much the only way to earn a living in poverty-stricken Uruzgan.
In late April, at the height of poppy-growing season, a team of more than 200 police officers from Kabul led by contractors working for the American company DynCorp International arrived in Uruzgan to undertake the first eradication efforts in the province. After some tense negotiations with local officials, the teams went out to begin destroying the poppy fields. For two days, nothing much happened, mostly because of a dispute about which fields were to be eradicated. But on the third day, when the work was getting underway in earnest, a Taliban-led force bearing small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars appeared from nowhere and attacked the eradication teams as they destroyed the fields. Four Afghan police officers were seriously injured.
The Uruzgan attack demonstrated, for those who hadn't yet figured it out, just how the Taliban is seeking to exploit popular resentment against eradication efforts. All across the country, Afghan support for poppy cultivation is on the upswing; 40% of Afghans now consider it acceptable if there is no other way to earn a living, and in the southwest, where much of the poppy crop is grown, two out of three people say it is acceptable. In Uruzgan's neighboring province, Helmand -- which supplies about half the world's opium, the raw material for heroin -- favorable ratings for the Taliban now run as high as 27% (compared with 10% in the whole of Afghanistan).
Instead of taking such findings to heart, the Bush administration's counter-narcotics policy over the last three years has placed eradication at its center, even though it has been met with growing Afghan skepticism and, in some cases, violence, and has coincided with a general decline in public support for the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan. Why is the policy so unpopular? Consider that Afghanistan's farmers will produce an estimated 9,000 tons of opium this year from 477,000 acres, according to a United Nations report released last week, and that the total farm value of the crop will be about $1 billion. Most farmers who cultivate poppies do so because few other options -- either alternative crops or alternative livelihoods -- exist in their part of the world. You simply cannot eviscerate the livelihoods of the estimated 3 million Afghans who grow poppies and not expect a backlash.
What's more, our policy is not effective. Though the U.S. spends about the same amount on counter-narcotics activities in Afghanistan annually as all Afghan poppy farmers combined take home in a year, our policies have not prevented record-setting poppy crops from springing up with every succeeding year, nor have they prevented Afghanistan from becoming a quasi-narcostate where corruption is rampant. Last week's U.N. report said Afghanistan continues to be the center of the world's heroin trade, accounting for 93% of global opium production. It noted a 17% spike in poppy cultivation in the last year, on the heels of a record 59% rise the year before.
The U.S. government, in short, is deeply committed to an unsuccessful drug policy that helps its enemies. The Taliban derives not only substantial financial benefits from the opium trade, according to U.S. military officials in Afghanistan, but wins political benefits from its supportive stance on poppy growing, masterfully exploiting situations in which U.S.-sponsored eradication forces are pitted against poor farmers.
Eradication has also become a wedge in the fragile relationship of the NATO countries that are part of the coalition in Afghanistan. Many European countries, including the Dutch, who have forces stationed in Uruzgan, oppose the American eradication policy. The U.S. needs its NATO partners to maintain the legitimacy of the multinational force in Afghanistan. Holding to a failed eradication policy threatens those relationships.
In early August, the U.S. State Department presented its updated counter-narcotics strategy for Afghanistan. For the most part, the proposal offered few new initiatives other than a welcome emphasis on cracking down on drug kingpins. At its center, the strategy still depends on eradication efforts, along with veiled hints that the U.S. government may also pursue aerial chemical spraying, a tactic that many fear will further alienate the Afghan population. The increased funds set aside in the new plan to help farmers find alternative livelihoods -- $50 million to $60 million -- are woefully inadequate and constitute a paltry 6% of American counter-narcotics spending in Afghanistan for 2007. Eradication continues to receive the largest share of the budget.
The State Department strategy misses the forest for the trees. The priority of the United States and NATO should be first to thwart the Taliban insurgency while bettering the lives of typical Afghans through significant economic and reconstruction efforts to win hearts and minds. Doing nothing on the poppy front would do more to achieve this goal than the counterproductive eradication path the U.S. currently pursues. The U.S. should adopt a "first do no harm" policy that temporarily suspends eradication while implementing a promising portfolio of new initiatives to build up alternatives for farmers.
To begin with, the U.S. needs to invest in building up the legitimate Afghan economy. Though poppy fetches much higher prices than most other crops, subsidies, price supports and seeds for alternative crops should be offered to offset that price gap. Because other crops often face pitfalls such as the absence of distributors, domestic demand or consistent prices abroad, the international community should help Kabul set up an agency, modeled on the Canadian Wheat Board, that would purchase crops from farmers at consistent prices, and market and distribute them internationally. The U.S. and other NATO countries should open their markets and extend trade preferences to Afghan agricultural products and handicrafts.
Currently, the U.S. funds alternative livelihoods at one-third the rate of eradication efforts -- and the money is still not making its way into the pockets of farmers. Because of bureaucratic inefficiencies, only 1% of the $100 million in funds for alternative livelihoods had been disbursed as of March, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. One reason for this is that the Afghan narcotics ministry lacks the staff and skills to quickly and effectively disburse funds. So the task should be outsourced -- in the same manner the U.S. outsources its eradication efforts to private companies like DynCorp -- until the Afghan government develops the capacity to get the job done.
The U.S. and NATO should also endorse a pilot project proposed by the Senlis Council, an international nongovernmental organization with offices in southern Afghanistan, to harness poppy cultivation for the production of legal medicinal opiates such as morphine for sale to countries, such as Brazil, that are in short supply of cheap pain drugs for patients.
The U.S. must stop targeting poor farmers and focus on the traffickers who make the bulk of the profits from heroin. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents on the ground should step up efforts to interrupt money-laundering networks and interdict labs and shipments. The DEA should also turn Afghanistan's shame-based culture to its advantage by making public the list of top Afghan drug suspects, including government officials, as it did in the 1990s, when it publicized the names of Colombia's drug kingpins.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office and the Council on Foreign Relations estimate that the elimination of narcotics from the Afghan economy will take well over a decade. Given that time frame, our counter-narcotics policy needs to be guided by a clear strategic purpose -- providing security and defeating the Taliban. These are not simple drug dealers but narcoterrorists with a political agenda. A "first do no harm" approach would ensure that battling the drug trade does not compromise the fight against the terrorists.
Peter Bergen, the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden," is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Sameer Lalwani is a policy analyst there.