How the Drug War in Afghanistan Undermines America’s War on Terror

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There is a growing tension between twoU.S. objectives in Afghanistan. The mostimportant objective is—or at least shouldbe—the eradication of the remaining AlQaeda and Taliban forces in that country.But the United States and its coalition partnersare now also emphasizing the eradicationof Afghanistan’s drug trade. These antidrugefforts may fatally undermine the farmore important anti-terrorism campaign.

Like it or not, the growing of opium poppies(the source of heroin) is a huge part ofAfghanistan’s economy—roughly half of thecountry’s annual gross domestic product.As long as the United States and other drugconsumingcountries pursue a prohibitioniststrategy, a massive black market premiumexists that will make the cultivation ofdrug crops far more lucrative than competingcrops in Afghanistan or any other drugsourcecountry. For many Afghan farmers,growing opium poppies is the differencebetween prosperity and destitution. There isa serious risk that they will turn against theUnited States and the U.S.-supported governmentof President Hamid Karzai ifWashington and Kabul pursue vigorousanti-drug programs. In addition, regionalwarlords who have helped the United Statescombat Al Qaeda and Taliban forces derivesubstantial profits from the drug trade.They use those revenues to pay the militiasthat keep them in power. A drug eradicationcampaign could easily drive important warlordsinto alliance with America’s terroristadversaries.

Even those Americans who oppose druglegalization and endorse the drug war as amatter of general policy should recognizethat an exception needs to be made in thecase of Afghanistan. At the very least, U.S.officials should be willing to look the otherway regarding the opium crop and recognizethat the fight against radical Islamicterrorists must have a higher priority thananti-drug measures.

Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, is the author or editor of 16 books on international affairs, including Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington�s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2003).