FIRST things first: In Afghanistan, the Taliban and al Qaeda are our
immediate enemies. But we'll eventually have to deal with poppy
cultivation and the heroin trade.
That may be even tougher than defeating Islamist extremists - if we
get it as wrong as we have with our counterdrug efforts elsewhere.
How serious is the problem? Afghanistan now produces an estimated
70 percent to 93 percent of the world's opium crop. Dope is the
country's leading export, bringing at least $3 billion a year into an
unimaginably poor country (some estimates soar higher).
Global drug fighters believe the 2007 Afghan crop reached 8,200
tons. More than 10 percent of the population may be tied to opium
production. And business is expanding.
Oh, and the Taliban extorts a reported 10 percent "tax" on opium production. All the threats we face are interrelated.
What can we do? In the short term, not much. In my years in
uniform, I surveyed our counterdrug efforts from the Andean Ridge to
the Golden Triangle. Lesson No. 1: If we fail to develop a
comprehensive, long-term approach, we'll only make matters worse.
It's tough to crack down in the middle of a conflict. We don't want
to further impoverish rural populations, driving them into the
Taliban's embrace. The still-fragile government of President Mohammed
Karzai may reign in Kabul, but it doesn't rule the provinces if local
strongmen don't consent.
Some of those warlords are deep in the dope trade. Karzai can't
afford to spark a civil war atop the struggle with Islamist extremists.
Why not just spray the poppy fields or uproot the harvest?
Defoliation requires permission from Kabul - which it can't afford to
give. Physically tearing up crops requires permission, too - and takes
one hell of a lot of manpower.
Outraging local farmers isn't what we want the Afghan National Army to concentrate on just now.
Over time, the harvest must be reduced. That's a given. But eradicating the crop without offering practical substitute crops - and the roads and means to get them to paying markets - just turns farmers against the intruding authority.
I saw it first-hand in Bolivia in 1994. My survey predicted that
clumsy eradication would backfire, turning coca farmers into activists
and electing a radical president. Now we've got Evo Morales in La Paz,
snuggling with Hugo Chavez. We don't want his Afghan counterpart ruling
The only way to make poppy eradication and crop substitution work
is to take a long view of the problem - longer than any president's
time in office.
And don't trust academic reports that claim the poor will tolerate being made poorer in the interests of legality. Income must be fully
replaced at the pick-and-shovel level. And nobody's going to send a
pack train to a remote valley to pick up some poor farmer's apples.
We're actually off to a good start with Afghan road-building
programs and development efforts. But it's just going to take time. The
central government needs to put down roots.
And we need to think like Afghans. Americans may feel that time's
pressing, but the local clocks there run slower than ours: Afghan
tribesmen don't plan according to a diplomat's Rolex and DayTimer.
Hopeless? No. Difficult - damnably so.
Complicating matters still further, the problem's worst effects are
going to spread regionally. I saw how that works back in the '90s, too.
When drug profits boom, production soars - and First World markets are
soon saturated. The surplus dope has to go somewhere - so it falls off
the truck in the transit countries.
That 1994 survey warned that Mexico and Central American states
would face metastasizing rates of addiction - for which they lack our
coping infrastructure - and destabilizing levels of narcoviolence.
Today, Central American gangs are international paramilitary forces
and Mexico's border with the United States is a combat zone, with the
Mexican army deployed in Tijuana and Juarez, while internal Mexican
states live under conditions verging on insurrection.
Imagine those levels of drug addiction and destabilizing
narcoviolence impacting Pakistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, Turkey, the
Caucasus and beyond.
It's already happening. You may not be able to order a cold Sam
Adams in Karachi or Tehran, but heroin's cheap and available. (And, in
the bizarre way reality has of confounding us, Iran may be the most
determined of those states to face the problem.)
The key question for the future: Will heroin markets from Belfast to Beijing just continue funding today's Islamist extremists - or will new forms of narcoterror make al Qaeda terrorists seem like amateurs?
Ralph Peters' latest book is "Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World."