Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Afghanistan and Heroin

As President Obama begins the process of switching focus from Iraq to Afghanistan, the situation in Afghanistan seemingly gets more dire with each passing day. In his column, Joel Brinkley offers some sober advice to Obama, including a suggestion that the US seal the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan by "declar[ing] the border closed, patrol[ing] it with helicopter gunships and shoot[ing] anyone who tries to cross." He also identifies the cultivation of poppies as a major impediment to progress, as "How can [NATO] troops quell an insurgency when the enemy is buying weaponry and enriching himself with drug money – as much as $100 million a year, the United Nations says – from the southern areas of Afghanistan he controls? And how can Western forces enlist cooperation from the government it is trying to protect when government leaders are also sucking up money from the opium farmers at such a voracious rate that Afghanistan is now classified as the fifth-most corrupt nation on earth?"

The solution, for Brinkely, is simple:

The United States, Afghanistan’s patron state, needs to tell Karzai that the price of continued support is the immediate eradication of the opium crops. Sure, the farmers will be angry. But what’s worse: enraging some constituents – or standing by while these same people hand over $100 million a year to your enemy?
Brinkely's advice violates everything the US military has learned about counter-insurgency warfare in Iraq. The most important thing is providing security and confidence to the local populace; if that cannot be done, the insurgents will be able to move among them and will be impossible to find. This is particularly true in Afghanistan, where the corruption of the central government and the seemingly endless litany of civilians deaths from NATO airstrikes have turned many Afghanis away from their government.

Poppy cultivation, and the subsequent production of heroin, is one of the only cash crops available to many Afghani farmers. Destroy their sole source of income, and they will have no choice but to turn to the Taliban for support as the central government has demonstrated no ability to develop a social network in the more rural area of the country.

Furthermore, how well has drug eradication worked in the US war on drugs? The US has spent $6 billion on coca eradication efforts in Colombia, only to see coca production rise by 15%. Why would it be any more likely to work in Afghanistan, which one can only assume would be a more difficult project than in Colombia?

A better answer is one I wrote about nearly 2 years ago: the legalization of poppy cultivation. Tony Blair raised this issue, arguing that the poppies could be purchased by NATO forces and used to produce opiate-based medicines (which just so happen to be in short supply). Even if the crop was purchased and subsequently destroyed, this option has at least two major benefits over Brinkely's suggestion. First, it would provide Afghani farmers with a reliable source of income that would be attributable to both the Afghani government and to NATO, two entities which are desperately in need of some good PR. Secound, it would deprive the resurgent Taliban of a vital source of income.

Shifting the outcome in Iraq took a major change in strategic thinking: the result was the surge that has paid off across the board in Iraq and has created the real possibility of success there. The same is true in Afghanistan. The tired logic and rhetoric of the war on drugs must be abandoned if the Taliban is to defeated and Afghanistan is to be given the chance that Iraq now seems to have. President Obama must not be held hostage by old ideas and domestic politics that sees poppy legalization as the first step towards drug legalization in the US. If legalizing and buying Afghani poppies can help the US and NATO win "the central front in the war on terror" then it is a move that must be made.

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