Afghanistan as Narco-State: End The International Drug War

The U.S. government has failed to stop the drug trade at home. Washington also has not created a competent, effective, and honest central government in Afghanistan. How effective will Kabul be in limiting opium production when American troops go home?

Not much.

A new report from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reports that opium production last year was the highest ever, 209,000 hectares, up 36 percent from 2012.

Alas, the sky is the limit. SIGAR warned:  “With deteriorating security in many parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivation are likely in 2014.”

Last year the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that opium exports accounted for 14 percent of the country’s GDP. Unfortunately, explained SIGAR:  “the narcotics trade poisons the Afghan financial sector and undermines the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption, sustaining criminal networks, and providing significant financial support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups.”

The Afghan public is understandably cynical. When I visited the country Afghans called large homes behind high walls lining Kabul streets “poppy palaces.” 

Drug production exploded despite $7.6 billion spent by Washington alone to stop cultivation and distribution. Noted SIGAR, “the recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts.”

The State Department’s response to SIGAR was a marvel of delusion. Production “is only one indicator of counternarcotics progress.”  And “we are making good progress in building the capability of our Afghan partners,” even as cultivation surges.

This is the best case for years of expensive efforts? Even UNODC admitted that the Afghan State is beset by “fragmentation, conflict, patronage, corruption and impunity.” The Pentagon stated that “the failure to reduce poppy cultivation and increase eradication is due to the lack of Afghan government support for the effort.” 

Nevertheless, State said it looked “forward to the new Afghan government assuming a leadership role in this regard.”

Eradication was difficult enough when backed by a strong allied military presence. Wrote Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, early programs were “manipulated by local Afghan strongmen to eliminate drug competition and ethnic/tribal rivals.”

Moreover, the eradication campaign, turned poppy farmers into Taliban supporters.  Eradication efforts also inflated Taliban revenues. As economist Jeffrey Clemens pointed out, the counter-narcotics campaign both redirected opium production to Taliban-controlled areas and raised poppy prices.

Operating on their own, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police will be hard-pressed to fulfill their most important responsibility to sustain the Kabul government against the Taliban. Drug interdiction inevitably will be a secondary objective for security forces which already suffer from corruption.

But no strategy likely would succeed even in the best circumstances. As noted earlier, attempting to suppress drugs could lose the geopolitical war without winning the fight against poppies. Even with greater development few legal opportunities would be better than poppy production.

Another approach is to reduce demand for drugs in Western societies to discourage production in Afghanistan. However, only the most draconian enforcement has much effect on drug use.

The West must set priorities in Afghanistan. Attempting to eradicate poppy production is almost guaranteed to lose the battle for hearts and minds.

Instead, allied policymakers should consider strategies to drain money and profit from the drug trade. Western governments should scale back the drug war.

Afghanistan could be allowed to produce opium for the legal morphine market. Ultimately the entire market should be legalized or at least decriminalized for adults.

Indeed, frustration with years of militarized eradication efforts, some in the midst of insurgencies akin to that in Afghanistan, has caused several Latin American governments to deemphasize enforcement.

As I noted in Forbes online:  “Afghanistan is merely one front in a global drug war. There are no good solutions. But Afghanistan and its Western-backers should recognize reality and abandon the futile and counterproductive campaign against the opium trade.”