Cut the Taliban’s lifeline
Steadily increasing opium production is an impediment to Afghanistan’s stability and security, and so it was important that President Bush and Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed the issue at Camp David. The Taliban has become more effective at profiting from the Afghan poppy crop and is using the opium industry to fuel its resurgence. The challenge for both governments is to make sure that counternarcotics and security efforts reinforce — not undermine — one another.
U.S. efforts in Afghanistan started with a focus on the terror threat, and counternarcotics efforts were left to the Europeans. The United States is now becoming more directly involved in counternarcotics, according to John P. Walters, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and with the large amount of aid set to go to Afghanistan, the United States is equipped to strongly pursue those efforts.
The governor of Baluchistan, a southwestern province in Pakistan, was in Washington recently expounding on the detrimental effects of allowing opium production. Awais Ghani told editors and reporters at The Washington Times that opium production throws a lifeline to the Taliban, and it also strengthens those elements that have a vested interest in the absence of a strong central government and the security it would provide. Pakistan and Afghanistan’s mutual and often public acrimony is well documented, but on this issue Pakistan’s position is both correct and valuable.
The drug economy makes up 25 percent to 33 percent of Afghanistan’s total economy, and through money laundering and front companies it is beginning to contaminate the lawful economy as well. As it has been in other countries, the drug trade has increased corruption, particularly among the local and provincial governments. Overall poppy production has increased, but production in many northern provinces has declined, while the trend has gone the other way in the south — particularly in the province of Helmand, where the number of hectares of poppy more than doubled from 2005 to 2006. There are lessons here for the United States and NATO.
Although as a province Helmand is the second-largest recipient of U.S. aid, farmers are turning from licit crops to poppy. This may reflect pressure from the Taliban or simply the fact that farmers make more money by growing poppy. Either way, it shows that incentives alone are insufficient to convince farmers to raise alternate crops and emphasizes the need for eradication. Speaking last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Ambassador Thomas A. Schweich, the acting assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, estimated that only 30 percent to 40 percent of Afghan farmers have no viable alternative to growing poppy. Incentives and coercion could therefore go a long way toward reducing opium production.