Commentary

Keeping Our Priorities Straight in Afghanistan

The war on drugs is interfering with the U.S. effort to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. U.S. officials increasingly want to eradicate drugs as well as nurture Afghanistan’s embryonic democracy, symbolized by the pro-Western regime of President Hamid Karzai. But they need to face the reality that it is not possible to accomplish both objectives.

Afghanistan has been one of the leading sources of opium poppies, and therefore the heroin supply, for many years. Indeed, there has been a steady upward trend in opium production for more than two decades. The only significant interruption to that trend occurred in 2001 following an edict by the Taliban regime banning opium cultivation on pain of death. (Taliban leaders had an ulterior motive for that move. They had previously stockpiled large quantities of opium and wanted to create a temporary scarcity to drive up prices and fill the regime’s coffers with additional revenue.) Today, Afghanistan accounts for nearly 75 percent of the world’s opium supply.

During the civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance in the 1990s, both sides were extensively involved in the drug trade. Since U.S. forces and their Northern Alliance allies overthrew the Taliban in late 2001 and drove them as well as Al Qaeda operatives into neighboring Pakistan, the drug commerce has been even more prominent. The trade now amounts to approximately $2 billion, nearly half of impoverished Afghanistan’s annual gross domestic product.

Some 264,000 families are estimated to be involved in growing opium poppies. Even measured on a nuclear family basis, that translates into roughly 1.7 million people—about 6 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Given the role of extended families and clans in Afghan society, the number of people affected is much greater than that. Indeed, it is likely that 20 to 25 percent of the population is involved directly or indirectly in the drug trade. For many of those people, opium poppy crops and other aspects of drug commerce are the difference between modest prosperity and destitution. They will not look kindly on efforts to destroy their livelihood.

Unfortunately, during 2004 the U.S. government increased pressure on the fragile Karzai government to crack down on drug crop cultivation. In August of that year, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also ordered American military forces in Afghanistan to make drug eradication a high priority.

That move is a big mistake. The Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies have already shown a resurgence in Afghanistan, especially in the southern part of the country. If zealous American drug warriors alienate hundreds of thousands of Afghan farmers, the Karzai government’s hold on power, which is none too secure now, could become even more precarious. Washington would then face the unpalatable choice of letting radical Islamists regain power or sending more U.S. troops to suppress the insurgency.

U.S. officials need to keep their priorities straight. Our mortal enemy is Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that made Afghanistan into a sanctuary for that terrorist organization. The drug war is a dangerous distraction in the campaign to destroy those forces. U.S. officials should look the other way regarding the drug activities of Afghan farmers. Washington should stop putting pressure on the Afghan government to pursue crop eradication programs and should not make U.S. soldiers into anti-drug crusaders. Even those policymakers who oppose ending the war on drugs ought to recognize that, in this case, the war against radical Islamic terrorism must take priority.

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or editor of 15 books on international affairs, including Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America (2003).