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Poppy wars

U.S. efforts to eradicate Afghanistan's crop are sowing seeds of resentment.

September 02, 2007|Peter Bergen and Sameer Lalwani | Peter Bergen, the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside the Secret World of Osama bin Laden," is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Sameer Lalwani is a policy analyst there.

Stepping onto the balcony of the governor's mansion in Uruzgan in southern Afghanistan, you quickly grasp the scale of the drug problem gripping the country. Beginning at the walls of the mansion and stretching as far as the eye can see are hundreds of acres of poppy fields ready for harvesting for opium sap, pretty much the only way to earn a living in poverty-stricken Uruzgan.

In late April, at the height of poppy-growing season, a team of more than 200 police officers from Kabul led by contractors working for the American company DynCorp International arrived in Uruzgan to undertake the first eradication efforts in the province. After some tense negotiations with local officials, the teams went out to begin destroying the poppy fields. For two days, nothing much happened, mostly because of a dispute about which fields were to be eradicated. But on the third day, when the work was getting underway in earnest, a Taliban-led force bearing small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars appeared from nowhere and attacked the eradication teams as they destroyed the fields. Four Afghan police officers were seriously injured.

The Uruzgan attack demonstrated, for those who hadn't yet figured it out, just how the Taliban is seeking to exploit popular resentment against eradication efforts. All across the country, Afghan support for poppy cultivation is on the upswing; 40% of Afghans now consider it acceptable if there is no other way to earn a living, and in the southwest, where much of the poppy crop is grown, two out of three people say it is acceptable. In Uruzgan's neighboring province, Helmand -- which supplies about half the world's opium, the raw material for heroin -- favorable ratings for the Taliban now run as high as 27% (compared with 10% in the whole of Afghanistan).

Instead of taking such findings to heart, the Bush administration's counter-narcotics policy over the last three years has placed eradication at its center, even though it has been met with growing Afghan skepticism and, in some cases, violence, and has coincided with a general decline in public support for the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan. Why is the policy so unpopular? Consider that Afghanistan's farmers will produce an estimated 9,000 tons of opium this year from 477,000 acres, according to a United Nations report released last week, and that the total farm value of the crop will be about $1 billion. Most farmers who cultivate poppies do so because few other options -- either alternative crops or alternative livelihoods -- exist in their part of the world. You simply cannot eviscerate the livelihoods of the estimated 3 million Afghans who grow poppies and not expect a backlash.

What's more, our policy is not effective. Though the U.S. spends about the same amount on counter-narcotics activities in Afghanistan annually as all Afghan poppy farmers combined take home in a year, our policies have not prevented record-setting poppy crops from springing up with every succeeding year, nor have they prevented Afghanistan from becoming a quasi-narcostate where corruption is rampant. Last week's U.N. report said Afghanistan continues to be the center of the world's heroin trade, accounting for 93% of global opium production. It noted a 17% spike in poppy cultivation in the last year, on the heels of a record 59% rise the year before.

The U.S. government, in short, is deeply committed to an unsuccessful drug policy that helps its enemies. The Taliban derives not only substantial financial benefits from the opium trade, according to U.S. military officials in Afghanistan, but wins political benefits from its supportive stance on poppy growing, masterfully exploiting situations in which U.S.-sponsored eradication forces are pitted against poor farmers.

Eradication has also become a wedge in the fragile relationship of the NATO countries that are part of the coalition in Afghanistan. Many European countries, including the Dutch, who have forces stationed in Uruzgan, oppose the American eradication policy. The U.S. needs its NATO partners to maintain the legitimacy of the multinational force in Afghanistan. Holding to a failed eradication policy threatens those relationships.

In early August, the U.S. State Department presented its updated counter-narcotics strategy for Afghanistan. For the most part, the proposal offered few new initiatives other than a welcome emphasis on cracking down on drug kingpins. At its center, the strategy still depends on eradication efforts, along with veiled hints that the U.S. government may also pursue aerial chemical spraying, a tactic that many fear will further alienate the Afghan population. The increased funds set aside in the new plan to help farmers find alternative livelihoods -- $50 million to $60 million -- are woefully inadequate and constitute a paltry 6% of American counter-narcotics spending in Afghanistan for 2007. Eradication continues to receive the largest share of the budget.

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