Time to Target the Taliban Drug Cartel

There's a reason the Taliban insurgency keeps gaining ground—drug money.

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This week the United Nations released new statistics on Afghanistan's opium production, and the upshot is that the country will remain the world's top producer of opium by a country mile. This should hardly come as a surprise, and most might be tempted to throw away the report as useless. But read between the lines and it's clear why the stubborn Taliban insurgency is gaining ground and, more important, how those gains can be cut back.

The big takeaway is that the report shows a continuation of Afghanistan's bifurcation. In the north, where the Taliban is weakest, poppy cultivation is all but stamped out. In the south, where the Taliban is strongest, poppy cultivation flourishes. The two phenomena—Taliban strength and opium cultivation—aren't coincidental. The Taliban are wholly linked to the drug trade, profiting from the taxes they levy on poppy-producing farms and villages, the protection offered by the region's powerful corrupt class, and the broader trafficking networks that allow not only the free flow of drugs but of men and weapons, too.

When I was in Afghanistan reporting on the drug trade for a GQ story two years ago, I argued that counternarcotics was critical to stabilizing Afghanistan. This is a sentiment shared by a number of observers and policymakers, most prominently and recently Tom Schweich, a former top official at State overseeing Afghanistan's drug problems. Last month, Schweich wrote an excellent account of his counternarcotics travails in the New York Times magazine.

There's a whole host of carrots the international community uses to persuade farmers not to grow poppies, and where civil society exists, such as in Afghanistan's north, those may have some usefulness. But in the restive south, only the stick will work.

Schweich puts a greater emphasis on eradication than interdiction. And while I agree that destroying poppy cultivation, particularly by aerial spraying, would be effective, I believe the heart of the matter lies in disrupting the drug networks and forcibly taking out the Mr. Bigs behind them.

Interdiction requires muscle, and while the DEA and its mentored Afghan units have made a good effort, the task in Afghanistan is simply too big. Effective interdiction needs more manpower, helicopters, and real firepower, and only militaries have the capabilities.

But NATO forces, including those of the United States, resist participation in both eradication and interdiction. The military views counternarcotics as essentially a law enforcement problem and worries that getting involved with it in Afghanistan would expose troops to further participation in the broader (and unwinnable) global war on drugs.

Instead, international forces have favored a "sequencing" approach, in which the Taliban is defeated militarily and then counternarcotics is tackled. That kind of prioritizing would be fine and well if the two scourges were separate, but of course they're not. Drugs feed a bottomless salad of corruption, porous borders, and enemy revenue and havens. Until NATO forces realize this, the bifurcation of the country will continue, perhaps even irreparably.

Antonio Costa, the U.N.'s drug czar, summed it up well: "There is now a perfect overlap between zones of high risk and regions of high opium cultivation. Since drugs are funding insurgency and insurgency enables drug cultivation, insurgency and narcotics must be fought together." Harrumph.