The International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) released a report on March 2, 2005, expressing its concern regarding “the increasingly sophisticated trade of opiates from Afghanistan.” Yet, Secretary-General Kofi Annan failed to even mention illegal drug trafficking as a global threat in his March 21st plan to improve international security and reform the U.N.
While his report identifies terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, organized crime, civil violence, poverty, and infectious diseases as major threats to international security, he ignores the illegal drug trade, which exacerbates all of the above. This omission is particularly worrisome even if it is only an oversight on the part of the Secretary. INCB reports over the years have acknowledged and warned against the detrimental and corrupting effects of heroin trafficking in Afghanistan and throughout the world. Regardless, the Secretary disregarded the dangers to human security and sustainable development posed by the drug trade in his plan.
Turning Afghanistan into a multi-billion dollar exporter of heroin was clearly not intended by the U.S. when it liberated the country from the oppressive regime of the Taliban. Yet, the reluctance to deal with Afghanistan's ever expanding poppy fields and heroin labs caused the 800% increase in the country's heroin production since its liberation. The latest reports released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) indicates that there is a slight decline in poppy cultivation, but that has not yet changed the availability of heroin either in Europe or in the U.S.
Recognizing the destabilizing effects of the heroin trade on U.S. efforts to establish democratic governance and a viable economy in Afghanistan, the U.S. government is finally increasing its drug eradication efforts in the region. This could prove to be too little too late.
Now that the Pentagon is reluctantly becoming engaged in the counter-narcotics effort, there is disagreement among Afghan, U.S., and U.N. officials about how best to fight this problem. President Hamid Karzai acknowledges that the drug trade poses a greater danger to Afghanistan than terrorism and calls on his countrymen to “do jihad” against drugs. At the same time, he argues that since heroin provides at least 60% of the Afghan gross domestic product, a drastic eradication program will destabilize the country. This view was reiterated when the Afghan counter-narcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, said last month, "I know it's an illicit economy, but for the time being, Afghanistan is trying to recover from all the problems of these so many years."
The growing effort of the U.S. military to curtail the flourishing heroin-based economy in Afghanistan is directed mainly towards supporting Afghan security forces and law enforcement personnel. Indeed, last month they helped the Afghans to seize 10 tons of opium and destroy seven refining laboratories. But the lead in the counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan is in the hands of the UK, which makes the decisions regarding the execution of Afghanistan’s eradication policy. The UK contributed only $3.6 million out of a total of $130 million that the G-8 has pledged initially to the overall initiative in 2003. Yet, they were responsible for the decision made then that the poppy eradication be conducted "by hand," i.e. cutting acres upon acres of poppy fields with machetes.
Since the British have entrusted the provincial governors with the eradication process – many of whom are said to be involved in the drug trade – it is not surprising that the UK-led counter narcotics effort in Afghanistan has until recently yielded an increase rather than a decrease in heroin production. Still, the British attribute recent successes in seizing 75 tons of opiates and 80 heroin to special training that their Special Air Service provided to the Afghans.
Regardless, Afghanistan is the U.S. “model” project for nation building, with billions already spent towards achieving that goal. The U.S. is also the major contributor of funds and military personnel to assist Afghanistan’s security and drug eradication activities, and the Pentagon is now asking for $257 million more in its budget for 2005 for its part in the efforts to protect the drug eradication program. Why then, is it the UK that is in charge and not the U.S.?
Perhaps the Pentagon’s reluctance to take charge is due to the fact that it is clear that cutting down poppy fields twice a year will not eradicate the problem and will continue to generate political confrontations with the local warlords, thus further destabilizing the country. The aerial eradication that is being planed, with a budget of $152 million, is resented by the Afghans and as seen elsewhere does not solve the problem.
Indeed, there are better ways to eradicate the poppy fields. The US government has spent more than $10 million in the last decade on the development of mycoherbicides, which are naturally occurring plant-pathogenic fungi that can be used to eradicate coca bushes or poppy plants. According to Dr. David Sands, who has spent years researching mycoherbicides, “a battery of six tests to verify the safety of the mycoherbicide from the point of toxicity and probable environmental impact...would cost $40,000 for each fungal strain." This seems like a very small investment in a safe method to eradicate the heroin problem and to work towards the development of a sustainable economy for the Afghan people.
Using this method in addition to supporting and subsidizing the establishment of alternative crops and industries in Afghanistan until they are self-sustainable would be a cost effective and safer solution for all parties involved. It would also further the US and ostensibly the UN’s agenda to build a stable and secure Afghan state, and to fight terrorism and poverty in South Asia.
Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld, author of Funding Evil; How Terrorism is Financed – and How to Stop It, is director of the American Center for Democracy (www.public-integrity.org) and a member of the Committee on the Present Danger.