Just Say No (to Afghan Counternarcotic Efforts)

The best way to deal with the drug problem in Afghanistan is to stop counternarcotic efforts.

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FILE - In this May 10, 2013 file photo, Afghan farmers collect raw opium as they work in a poppy field in Khogyani district of Jalalabad east of Kabul, Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s opium production surged in 2013 to record levels, despite 12 years of international efforts to wean the country off the narcotics trade, according to a report released Wednesday by the U.N.’s drug control agency.

In 2001, before the September 11th attacks on New York and Washington and the ensuing war on terror, Afghanistan's poppy fields lay fallow. The Taliban, then in power in Kabul, had managed to eradicate the country's drug production problem. They did so not through manual destruction, aerial spraying or security interdiction, but through fatwa – clerically rendered, and brutally enforced.

Almost 13 years later, the situation is very different. Opium production in Afghanistan has increased by some 1,900 percent, while poppy cultivation reached an all-time high in 2013, according to a recently released report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (better known by its acronym, UNODC). This new reality represents a colossal failure in state building on the part of the United States and its NATO allies – who, having won the war against al-Qaida and the Taliban in the days after 9/11, have since lost the peace.

Historically, counternarcotic has gone hand in hand with counterinsurgency. The reason for this is simple: rebels take advantage of lootable resources to financially support rebellion, and drug cultivation has proven to be a particularly lucrative trade. When violent insurgency and narcotics production align, counternarcotic strategies like alternative livelihoods and licensing become less feasible. Absent a stable security environment, eradication is the default approach. This is because manual crop destruction, while inefficient, can be carried out by soldiers.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Afghanistan.]

But eradication, too, has repeatedly proven impotent, because destroying crops doesn't destroy consumer demand for product or farmer demand for income. If supply in an addiction market decreases, the price invariably increases. The result is a net revenue gain for the producer – and price incentives for further growth.

This dynamic can be seen in Afghanistan today. For the most part, eradication undertaken by the U.S.-led coalition has had a negligible impact on cultivation and production levels. However, to see the impact of successful supply reduction, a look at data from 2010 and 2011 are revealing. In 2010 drug production in Afghanistan saw a significant decline—but this was largely attributable to crop disease in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, rather than coalition efforts. The following year, market prices were higher, and 2011 saw an increase in cultivation, production, and income. When supply was destroyed the Taliban, made more money.

Why then, do the Taliban fight eradication efforts, if the result is increased revenue? Now in the political opposition, the movement has resisted eradication in order to retain its geographic position, and in many cases perpetuate the dependency of the population. In the process, the insurgency has helped to undermine the credibility of the Afghan government, and created a parallel system of Islamist sharia law.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is It Time to Scale Back the 'War on Drugs'?]

The Taliban's approach makes sense. After NATO forces withdraw at the end of 2014, a resurgent Taliban will need geographical permanence and the support or dependency of the population if it intends to challenge the government of president Hamid Karzai for the future of the Afghan state.

Eradication policy suffers from numerous other shortfalls, from environmental hazards associated with toxic herbicides to displacement (when instances of eradication spur narcotics cultivation in neighboring states, as they have in the case of Colombia). Yet eradication remains the primary mode of counternarcotic strategy because of the close relationship between drugs and insurgency.

What can the U.S. and its allies do? Strangely, the best strategy might be to do nothing at all. As the recent statistics out of Afghanistan show, counternarcotic policies have only served to aggravate the drug problem over the last 13 years. Moving forward, the United States and other Western powers would do well to consider scaling back their counternarcotic efforts – at least until a holistic, humane, and proven policy can be formulated.

Sam Kierstead is a researcher at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, D.C.

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