Commentary

Solving Afghanistan’s Opium Problem

This article appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune, October 20, 2004.

Afghanistan’s presidential elections came off with little violence but some damaging controversy. President Hamid Karzai’s 15 opponents charged vote fraud.

Whether the election is perceived as legitimate is only the second most important issue facing the war-torn nation. Most critical is whether the Bush administration risks undermining the fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in an attempt to suppress drug production.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan has become a global Opiates ‘R’ Us.

In a nation where the average wage is a $2 a day, heroin and opium trafficking produced revenues last year estimated at $2.3 billion annually - as much as 60 percent of Afghanistan’s official annual GDP. Opium has become the perfect export from a land enveloped by chaos and war.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime has attempted to craft a positive spin: “The establishment of democracy in Afghanistan and the Government’s measures against cultivation, trade and abuse of opium have been crucial steps toward solving the drug problem.”

The fundamentalist Taliban took power in 1996 and banned use of all intoxicants, including opiates. However, Kabul had no objection to people selling drugs to infidels.

Following the Taliban’s ouster, the new government outlawed opium production. But chaos meant that the poppy fields were replanted and smuggling revived.

Regime change, though necessary for security purposes, did not provide Afghan households with a new income. Moreover, Hamid Karzai rules little more than Kabul.

Even a successful election won’t help much. Poppy production has spread to 28 of 32 provinces, and the Afghan government figures that about 30 percent of families are involved in the trade.

Until now, controlling opium trafficking has not been the top U.S. priority in Afghanistan. Although the Defense Department is careful to appear cooperative, U.S. forces have largely ignored drug trafficking unrelated to enemy action.

The Taliban is involved in drug trafficking, but so are many of Karzai’s (and America’s) local warlord allies. The poppy traders “are the guys who helped us liberate this place in 2001,” one U.S. official told The New York Times.

Unfortunately, even the return of stability and prosperity won’t eliminate the drug trade. Observed the UNODC, “Given the current opium prices within Afghanistan, it is also clear that no other crop can compete with opium poppy as a source of income.”

Which leaves interdiction. Interdiction in regions run by warlords and where the Taliban and al-Qaeda are active.

To his credit, House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, R-Ill., says “I do not want our military forces, already tasked with vital counterterrorism and stability operations, to become Afghanistan’s anti-narcotics police.” That, he says, should be the job of “Afghan police, army and judicial authorities we are helping to build.”

Yet there is no functioning Afghan state. How is a government that is unable to secure its capital city going to squelch poppy production in distant provinces?

U.S. forces, just 18,000 in the entire country, already are badly stretched. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says Washington and its allies are developing a “master plan” to combat opium production.

Robert B. Charles, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, promises: “We intend to be very aggressive, very proactive.” He adds, “If the penalties are high enough, they will not grow heroin poppies.

But if Washington penalizes its erstwhile allies, it risks driving them back to the Taliban.

Indeed, drug producers are suspected to have staged the bomb attack on the private security firm DynCorp, which has been training anti-narcotics police. The Karzai government claimed that the same forces attempted to assassinate vice presidential candidate Ahmed Zia Masood.

“There is no quick fix,” says Rosalind Marsden, Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it’s not clear that there is a slow fix either.

Attempting to suppress the drug trade with more than rhetoric will make it even harder to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Yet Washington’s most important goal today remains destroying transnational anti-U.S. terrorist networks, led by al-Qaeda.

A British parliamentary committee recently warned that without additional resources, “Afghanistan - a fragile state in one of the most sensitive and volatile regions in the world - could implode.” Expanding the drug war will make that more likely to happen. Unfortunately, the United States has little choice but to leave Afghanistan’s opium market open to the world.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan.