Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Afghanistan Drug Policy

In case you didn't realize, Afghanistan is the central front in the War on Terror and the War on Drugs. Afghanistan is now a major producer of opium and the Bush administration, with the help of the Karzai government, has been trying for four years to reduce opium production in the country. They have largely failed:

[U.S. Ambassador] Schweich acknowledged that US programs had only achieved mixed results in curbing the narcotics trade in Afghanistan. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, total annual poppy production in Afghanistan increased by 49 percent in 2006, from 4,500 to 6,700 metric tons of opium. US government experts estimate that opium production currently amounts to almost a third of Afghanistan’s total Gross Domestic Product, or slightly over $3 billion.

This after we've stepped up efforts to stop poppy production. For these reasons, the Bush administration has announced a change in the program:

The administration still considers the main elements of its five-point Afghan counternarcotics strategy fundamentally correct for advancing toward that deadline. These elements include (1) waging an effective public information campaign; (2) providing opium farmers with alternative and legal opportunities for earning their livelihood; (3) enhancing the capacity of Afghan law enforcement agencies to prosecute major narco-traffickers through their imprisonment or extradition; (4) eradicating opium crops; and (5) interdicting the flow of narcotics within and beyond Afghanistan.

Since no alternative crop can match the income earned from opium production, it was essential to increase the potential costs of participating in narcotics trafficking by increasing the financial and legal costs for potential traffickers. To help achieve this goal, the United States will enhance its training and equipping programs and fund an increase in the size of Afghanistan’s counternarcotics police force so that the authorities can step up the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of leading drug traffickers.

In Schweich’s assessment, some coercion is essential because many Afghan opium cultivators will only abandon their illegal activities when faced with more effective Afghan law enforcement institutions. He also maintained that a tough policy would assist the counterinsurgency campaign by countering Taliban efforts to portray the government of President Hamid Karzai as weak.

In other words, they're aiming to crack down even more on the farmers who grow the poppy. The problem of course is that although the people who engage in the drug trade are notorious warlords and drug traffickers, the people who actually grow the drug are ordinary Afghan farmers. This policy, at least as far as I read it, intends to punish them even more harshly for growing the drug, which is the most profitable crop in Afghanistan and a rational choice for any farmer struggling to feed a family in a poor and war-torn country. What this policy does not do is provide those farmers an effective alternative to growing opium. Without such an incentive, farmers are highly unlikely to give up opium no matter how tough the Karzai government is. As for propaganda uses, well yes an effective drug enforcement program would certainly counter the image of Karzai as weak. Unfortunately, it will also allow the Taliban to portray Karzai as even more of a tool of the coalition (after all, there's no mistaking who wants these drugs destroyed) and both Karzai and us as completely uninterested in the welfare of the Afghan farmer. So, propaganda victory? No. Victory in the War on Drugs?

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