The U.S Struggle on Drug War in Afghanistan


The U.S Struggle on Drug War in Afghanistan

The United States in essence has been waging two wars: a counterinsurgency against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and a war to eradicate the opium trade in Afghanistan. At the beginning, the latter war was a much lower priority of the U.S. because the main goal of the U.S. was to focus on the war on terror; destroying and dismantling Al Qaeda, overthrowing the Taliban regime that gave sanctuary to Al Qaeda, and creating a viable democratic state. The U.S. began the war against the Taliban on October 7, 2001 and over the span of a month the Taliban were ousted from power. The purpose of this brief is to provide a background of U.S. foreign policy and its failures on the drug war in Afghanistan, and suggest alternatives sustain Afghanistan.

          In December of 2001, some prominent Afghans and world leaders met in Bonn, Germany through the United Nations. They outlined a policy became known as the Bonn Agreement. The agreement’s goals were to design and re-build the state following the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. One of the tenets of the Bonn agreement called for a post-Taliban Afghan government to prevent Afghanistan’s re-emergence as a safe haven for drug cultivation. From the beginning, the Bush administration decided that besides fighting against Al Qaeda and the Taliban, some of the U.S. resources should be focused on counter-narcotics. In this mission, Britain was also an important ally and later took the lead among members of the coalition alongside the newly established Afghan government to reduce narcotics production and trade. In January 2002, at the urging of the U.S. and the international community, the Afghan interim government banned poppy cultivation. Afghanistan’s President Hamed Karzai announced that “Either Afghanistan destroys opium or opium will destroy Afghanistan.” The U.S. and the international community welcomed Karzai’s support as part of its important strategic framework for its future work with the Afghan government. The Bonn agreement not only urged the U.S. and the international community to fight against narcotics but also forced the Afghan government to put pressure on its citizens to stop cultivating opium.

Afghanistan has always been and still is dependent on its agriculture. Prior to the Soviet-Afghan war, Afghanistan’s infrastructure supported legal and relatively prosperous farming. Three decades of wars have completely destroyed irrigation systems, agricultural institutions and access to markets for farmers. Because opium is profitable and drought resistant, it became appealing to famers who had low important infrastructure. Opium has become one of the major of income of finance for many Afghans. In 2003, an estimated 500,000 Afghan families supported themselves by raising poppies, according to the U.N. office on Drugs and Crime. This includes farmers and traders whose lives depend on opium cultivation. The Taliban, who once in 2000 banned opium cultivation, now support the farmers because they benefit financially. The opium trade has been a major source of financing for the Taliban insurgency. Enforcing the ban on hundred of thousands of farmers could result into a crisis. Because the U.S. was not completely aware of opium production’s role in the Afghan economy, and some other societal complexities surrounded the issue as well, the U.S was not prepared for this rapid rebound of opium production.

Early in 2002, the U.S. designated the UK as a lead donor on counternarcotics. The UK granted $100 million to create alternative livelihoods for Afghan farmers who were at the time growing opium poppy. From the beginning there was a hope that the program would be successful. However, as time went on and they could not answer to farmers’ demands, the policy on providing livelihoods to Afghan farmers gradually failed. In the spring of 2002, the UK and Afghan governments came up with a hasty offer to compensate farmers with the equivalent of $250-$350 for each acre of poppy eradicated. The government soon increased the offer to $500 per acre, yet this amount did not satisfy the demands of farmers and tribesmen who were angry at an offer that destroyed their livelihoods and did not compensate them enough. The angriest farmers blocked the highways and also attacked a government anti-narcotics team in eastern Afghanistan. Thus, the program that was designed to eradicate poppy cultivation as soon as possible was doomed to failure despite spending millions of dollars as compensations for farmers.

The United States, which was not leading the counternarcotics program, finally began to develop a counternarcotics policy for Afghanistan in 2003. First, the U.S. provided $100 million for crop eradication through U.S. contractors. The crop eradication was quite successful for a short period. It temporarily depressed the supply, but it raised the price, increasing incentives to grow opium the following year. Thus, the result of crop eradication was not only an increase in production but it was as well a shift of production to remote and inaccessible areas. Once again, this rapid and aggressive pursuit of eradication enraged and alienated several farmers, many of whom turned against the U.S. and NATO forces by joining the Taliban. In addition, the eradication efforts also fueled resistance from drug traffickers, the warlords who were (and remain) behind opium cultivation, and corrupted Afghan officials who were also benefiting from the opium trade. Once again, the U.S. counternarcotics program failed. The efforts and millions of dollars that were spent on the eradication program were in vain.

Despite repeated failures in its policy towards opium eradication, the U.S. came out with a new counternarcotics policy in 2005. A new strategy was developed by U.S. policymakers to parallel the Afghan National Drug Control Strategy (NDCS). The new policy outlined the U.S. counternarcotics strategy by five pillars: First, “alternative livelihoods” would provide economic alternatives to poppy cultivation by providing business and agricultural development programs designed to provide jobs in reconstruction, development, and licit agricultural activities. Second, elimination/eradication: destroy poppy crops would be destroyed under the auspices of the Afghan central and regional government. Third, interdiction: trafficking and processing of opium/heroin would be decreased by using a U.S. trained domestic counter-narcotics police force. Four, law enforcement/justice reform: increase law enforcement and efficacy of the rule of law by empowering the police and justice sectors of the Afghan government. Five, public information: inform and educate the public (Afghan citizens) through community outreach programs. Several U.S. agencies were assisting Afghanistan in pursuit these goals. In 2005, the U.S. spent a total of $782 million to support its counternarcotics program, $258 million of which was spent on eradication policies. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), even though a huge sum of money was spent, only 15,300 hectares or roughly 10 percent of the opium crop was eradicated. The result of this effort during the Bush Administration was an utter failure. Some program money even went to the pockets of corrupted Afghan officials. The security situation in Afghanistan rapidly declined.

When Barack Obama took office, his administration dramatically changed the course of U.S. foreign policy on the war on drugs in Afghanistan. In March 2009, Obama Administration Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Richard Holbrooke described the poppy eradication effort in Afghanistan as the most wasteful and ineffective program. Holbrooke said that it was counterproductive, generating political support for the Taliban and undermining the nation-building. Holbrooke outlined the Obama Administration’s new policy on the war on drugs in Afghanistan, a policy which completely differed with the previous administration. Holbrooke said that the poppy famers are not the enemy of the U.S. -- the Taliban are. He stated that the U.S. had wasted hundreds of millions of dollars and thus the U.S. would no longer support the crop eradication. The Bush Administration had put steady pressure on Karzai’s government to speed up the eradication efforts, arguing that defeating the Taliban would require depriving it of revenue. The new U.S. policy, although it worried some Afghans for such a radical shift, was generally welcomed by international communities. Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UNODC praised the shift and called eradication efforts “a sad joke” – sad because so many Afghan security forces had been killed in the efforts and only three percent of the volume of opium had been eradicated. Resources would now be focused on counterinsurgency rather than counternarcotics.

Beginning in 2009, the Obama administration transitioned away from the Bush administration’s “Five Pillar Plan” – toward countering the link between narcotics and insurgency and attacking the narcotics insurgency nexus. The efforts also assisted more emphasis on Afghan farmers in switching from poppy cultivation to growing licit crops. The alternatives for farmers that the U.S. policymakers touted were wheat, whose price was three times lower than opium and needs more water than opium, and saffron which sells at a high price on the international market but inside Afghanistan the price dropped by 60 percent with supply outstripping demand. In 2010, saffron sold for $4,500 per kilogram and in 2011 had it dwindled to $1,500 per kilogram. While many parts of Afghanistan were hit by drought, pressured intensely by the U.S. the Afghan government began aggressively enforcing the ban on opium poppy cultivation. In August, 2009, the Associated Press described the situation; shops were empty, farmers in debt, and entire communities spiraled into poverty. While there was no help offered to farmers to support themselves, the U.S. and Afghan government neglected this extremely tangible need, however, the Taliban have always been an option for poor farmers. The farmers shifted their support from the central government to the Taliban. The Obama administration, which had come with a new policy to bring alternatives to farmers, once again turned into a failure, alienating poor Afghans who depended on the crop for their livelihoods. More and more people joined the Taliban in order to start back planting opium and survive.

In spite of failure, the U.S. efforts did not stop. They became even more aggressive and U.S. planes started dropping bombs on poppy crops. In the meantime, the U.S. deployed dozens of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents to Afghanistan to target trafficking networks that were increasingly fueling the Taliban insurgency and also corrupting the Afghan government. CNN reported on July 21, 2009, that the U.S. military dropped a series of 1,000 bombs from the planes on the mounds of 300 tons of poppy seeds and followed with airstrikes from helicopters in southern Afghanistan. The U.S. State Department called the strike part of U.S strategy shift for the military to stop the Taliban and other insurgents from profiting from drugs. On July 26, 2009, the Associated Press reported that the U.S. Marines and Afghan forces had found and destroyed hundreds of tons of poppy seeds, opium and heroin in southern Afghanistan. Holbrooke claimed victory for the new Afghan counternarcotics strategy that targeted the mounds of seeds. Despite a short term victory, the security situation was deteriorating in most of the southern regions so that the level of opium production never decreased. Following this failure, the Obama administration declared counterinsurgency to be its priority, depriving the counternarcotics.

In December 2009, U.S. President Obama announced that he would deploy an additional 30,000 soldiers and warned that America would begin its withdrawal of military forces by 2011. The new policy did not include counternarcotics and it seemed the U.S. policymakers excluded the drug war from their new policy, instead insisting on a troop surge. This surge brought the U.S. troops’ strength in Afghanistan to more than 100,000. In addition, the U.S. sent 4,000 new troops to train Afghan soldiers and police. The plan included a goal of having 134,000 soldiers in the Afghan army and prepare them to take responsibility for Afghanistan’s security. The key element of this surge included an exit plan that would begin to hand over security to Afghan security forces by mid- 2011. Once again, the Obama administration asserted that the surge was to finish the job - destroy and dismantle Al Qaeda and make sure they do not coming back. However, the U.S. did not abandon its Holbrooke era policy of attacking the narcotics insurgency nexus. Recently, the AP reported that U.S. and Afghan forces destroyed drugs worth more than $350 million and three drug laboratories in Helmand province. While the U.S. was preparing to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan, on October 11, 2011, the UNODC released its annual report showing that due to insecurity and high prices, opium poppy crop cultivation has increased 7 percent over in 2010. The increase of opium cultivation has been directly linked to the increase of insurgency activities throughout the country.

As the U.S. is preparing to start withdrawing its troops in 2011 and pull out most of its troops from Afghanistan by 2014, the future of counternarcotics under the Afghan government is unclear. The U.S. has already started handing over security to Afghan forces. The first stage contained six provinces, and now according to Reuters the U.S. is preparing to complete the second stage of security handover of seventeen areas to Afghan forces within the next 18 months. While this transition is happening, the U.S. and the international communities’ policy towards counternarcotics is unclear. As Afghanistan is getting more insecure, the level of narcotics is also increasing. According to UN figures that were released recently, Afghan war violence has increased nearly 40 percent over last year. This violence has a direct link with opium poppy cultivation because it became the only source of financing for insurgencies. Now that U.S forces are leaving Afghanistan, it is hard to imagine what should be done in such a short time which has not been tried over the last ten years. However, there are still ways to help and save Afghanistan from falling into a state of drug-fueled insecurity.

First, Afghanistan needs a strong law enforcement institution consisting of police and gendarmerie to enforce the law, protect property, restrict people from cultivating opium, and monitor the drug traffic movements. For the last 10 years, the U.S. has spent billions of dollars on the Afghan army and its police. Today, the Afghan police stand at nearly 142,000 compared to 170,781 soldiers. Instead of spending this amount of money on army which Afghanistan does not need, money needs to be spend on a national police institution. These police forces should be trained and equipped well, in addition, their salaries should be increased so the officers will be less likely to accept bribes. Afghanistan has always lacked strong security institutions to enforce the role of law and be the guardian of the law. The foundation of such an institution has already been built; however, it is a fledgling institution that requires the support of foreign countries, especially the United States. Afghanistan is very fragmented not only geographically but ethnically and politically. In order to make this institution functional, the central government should prioritize the recruitment of officers from different ethnic groups and deploy them to different geographical locations. This first eliminates the sense of discrimination, disparity and disunity among Afghan nations which have always been problems. Second, it will take time for police to adapt and learn the terrain and people. For instance, a Pashton police from the South serving in the North which is largely populated by non-Pashtons will keep him away from nepotism and corruption. The new environment will oblige police to abide by the role of law and to be loyal to his job. Thus, having a long term goal to eradicate opium can be done gradually. People will have to adapt to law, something that has never happened before. Having such a strong institution is necessary for a future of Afghanistan that will not only be useful to eradicate the mass production of opium but also will help to bring security and the rule of law in the country.

In addition to having a strong police institution to enforce the law against opium poppy cultivation, there should be an alternative agricultural solution as well. Due to a large number of people engaged in poppy farming, a long term substitute for it will not be found unless it is also profitable. This seems very challenging in a country that has long history of lawlessness, depends on weapons, widespread corruption and tribal codes prevailing over state law. However, with a strong institutionalized police, offering an income alternative while eliminating of opium is achievable. In order to break farmers’ reliance on their poppy crop and to provide alternative livelihoods, there is a need for some basic assets that are viable. These viable assets are access to water, land, electricity and properly paved roads to connect villages to nearby towns and to major cities. This is important because 80 percent of Afghanistan is rural and less accessible to the central government.  In addition, for alternative livelihoods to be implemented, a legal long term subsidy should be provided while focusing on agricultural infrastructure, an institution that is in dire need of rebuilding. For example, the irrigation systems, dams, underground canals that tap subsurface water - known locally as Karez - and many structures that channel river water into irrigation canals are either not functional or function poorly and should be rebuilt. In the meantime, different types of crops should be introduced to Afghan farmers besides cereals, grain and wheat. The only way to distance farmers from poppy is through a long term scheme of irrigation water that will raise the incomes of Afghanistan’s people.

Third, while the investing in the long term needs strong international support and commitment, there should also be market for the Afghan products internationally. There were some limited agricultural projects carried out for the past years in some parts of Afghanistan where the security situation allows, and where the water and soil is suitable. For example, recently, in Herat province sesame, and saffron are being grown remarkably. Even though the price of saffron drastically declined this summer, the farmers have said that they do not want to go back to poppy cultivation as long as the government provides them with financial help. Thus, to make it a viable alternative income for Afghan farmers, the U.S. and the international community should support and find a place for Afghan saffron in the global market. Fore example, there should be a multilateral free trade agreement to support Afghan products. Besides saffron, Afghanistan has long been one of the big producers for dried and fresh fruits like raisins, blueberries, pomegranate and other items. Pomegranate is mainly produced in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban and a province which has high production in poppy as well. In 2009, Afghanistan exported some 50,000 tons of the fruit to the world. If initiatives like these are supported by the U.S. and the international community Afghan farmers would not willing to cultivate poppy.

Finally, the aforementioned long term goals will directly benefit U.S. foreign policy interests in Afghanistan. As the U.S. has already pledged to rebuild Afghanistan, these long term goals will bring its promise into reality. Afghanistan will stand on its own feet, the U.S. will spend less money on Afghanistan, and with a strong police institution, the U.S. will not need to have its troops on the ground. From a prosperous and a secure Afghanistan, the U.S. will be greatly respected by Afghans and others. The Afghans would be more likely to allow Americans to take advantage of the nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits that were discovered last year by a small team of Pentagon officials and American geologists. From a security point of view, Afghanistan will not fall into a safe haven for terrorists again that could create another 9/11. These benefits to the U.S. interests include a reduction in threats to the United States, fewer refugees attempting to enter the United States and other countries, and a better economic partner in American trade and investment. Moreover, Afghanistan will not be a narco-state which once provided 97% of drug worldwide. Young Afghan men and women would have chance to go school and work with the government and private sectors and will be able to earn money by legal means rather than being hired by the drug dealers working in poppy farms. All these will lead to prosperity and security that will help democracy to flourish which is the main goal of the United States.