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Winning the Afghan Drug War By: Matt Gurney
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, August 31, 2009

As ballots continue to be counted in Afghanistan, the Western world's attention is watching the country’s experiment with democracy with varying degrees of hope and skepticism. While the recent presidential election has not passed entirely without incident, the mere fact that Afghans can vote at all is astonishing when one thinks back a mere ten years.


With the election over, focus can once again move beyond the immediate need to provide security to the long-term project of developing Afghanistan into a strong state capable of seeing to its own needs. As a weak country hobbled by corruption and divided up among warlords and drug chieftains, Afghanistan suffers from the kind of political instability on which terrorism and criminality thrives, and it not surprising that, despite the progress made in recent years, the country still serves as a training ground for foreign fighters and a supplier of heroin for addicts around the world.


It’s quite possible that the greatest obstacle to progress in Afghanistan is not bin Laden and his hate-filled disciples, but the drug lords eager to profit from the growth of opium poppies, believed to supply as much as nine-tenths of the world's heroin. Terrorism and the narcotics trade have become inseparable. The Taliban works closely with the drug lords and, in some parts of the country, the Taliban are the drug lords. The sale of opium helps fund extremism and the anti-NATO insurgency, while the easy undermining of the Afghan authorities through cash bribes prevents the country from developing the civil institutions it needs to evolve. While the problems of terrorism and drug production are distinct, it is virtually impossible to deal with one without dealing with the other.


Failure to deal with the opium problem has meant that both terrorists and drug runners have operated freely. As the insurgency has gained strength, the rate of heroin production in Afghanistan has risen steadily. Under the Bush administration, the United States sought to eradicate the poppy fields, solving the problem by simply destroying it. While certainly direct, this approach alienated local farmers, whose livelihoods depended on harvesting poppies, perhaps the only crop they'd ever grown. Farmers whose whole crop was destroyed by American troops logically turned to the Taliban, not only to get back at the Americans, but to earn enough money to support themselves and their families. Thus the United States was damned if it did and damned if it didn't: Leaving the fields alone funded the Taliban's operations in both Pakistan and Afghanistan; burning the poppies provided them with fresh recruits.


President Obama is seeking to set a new course. Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, has dismissed the Bush administration's eradication campaign as ineffective and a “waste” of money. Under Obama, the eradication of poppies will stop. Instead, America, in cooperation with Britain and perhaps other allies, will begin to provide Afghan farmers with cheap loans and easy access to crops other than poppies. Furthermore, farmers will be offered jobs and paid by coalition forces for working during the winter months, typically in construction and infrastructure development.


This strategy has much to recommend it. However, it will have scant chance of success in areas of the country not under firm NATO control. The Taliban has been known to force farmers to grow poppies, and certainly would not hesitate to make an example out of any farmer doing business with NATO. Before the U.S. and its allies can ask these farmers to work with them, they must first ensure their physical safety.


The ongoing surge of American troops into Afghanistan will help make this goal a reality by expanding the area under coalition forces’ control. With the Taliban and the drug cartels outgunned, the work of weaning the Afghan economy off of opium can begin in earnest. As part of that effort, the Drug Enforcement Administration is beefing up its presence in Afghanistan, from barely a dozen agents to 81 by year's end. These agents will work with the local government, in areas made safe by the presence of NATO soldiers, to seek out and destroy caches of opium, track down and arrest major players in the drug trade, and do everything possible to disrupt the flow of money to both Taliban fighters and corrupt Afghan officials.


Simultaneously, special National Guard agriculture units will be working with local farmers, sharing advanced Western farming techniques and establishing irrigation systems with farmers willing to move away from narcotics production. An Afghan provincial official, touring the United States, recently praised the efforts the Missouri National Guard, which he credits with helping make his province virtually drug free. Completed on a much larger scale, such efforts could yield hugely positive results.


While the Obama administration’s strategy represents a new solution to an old problem, the president would be unwise to break totally with the policies of his predecessor. For instance, there are lawless parts of Afghanistan where the eradication of large poppy fields still could make sense. The administration would also do well to remain open to other strategic possibilities. As an example, coalition forces should consider outbidding the Taliban to purchase poppies from farmers disinclined to change their crops. The opium could be converted into morphine for medical purposes, or simply destroyed. As counter-intuitive as that may seem, in the long-run buying it from the farmers might be less costly than letting the Taliban buy it. Every dollar spent on purchasing opium could be fairly considered money taken from the Taliban, and invested in building a less corrupt Afghanistan.


Last but not least, the corrupt and inefficient Afghan National Police force must be turned something into something more useful than a sectarian protection racket. For too long, the primary focus of foreign forces has been training Afghan soldiers, leaving the police to become a cesspool of corrupt, barely equipped and poorly led recruits eager to shake down the local populace to supplement their meager pay. Canadian and American forces are working hard at correcting this enormous liability, but until Afghanistan has trustworthy police force, establishing lasting law and order will be all but impossible.


The Obama administration has taken the proper steps toward ending the scourge of Afghanistan’s destructive drug trade. In the context of the recent democratic election, flawed though it was, it is one more indication that the country is on a path toward a brighter future. Hope springs eternal in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, for now, so does opium. 

Matt Gurney is an assistant editor for comment at Canada’s National Post, and writes and speaks on issues of military and geopolitical concern. He can be reached at mgurney.responses@gmail.com

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