"I'm a spray man myself," President Bush told government leaders and American counter-narcotics officials during his 2006 trip to Afghanistan. He said it again when President Hamid Karzai visited Camp David in August. Bush meant, of course, that he favors aerial eradication of poppy fields in Afghanistan, which supplies over 90 percent of the world's heroin. His remarks -- which, despite their flippant nature, were definitely not meant as a joke -- are part of the story behind the spectacularly unsuccessful U.S. counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan. Karzai and much of the international community in Kabul have warned Bush that aerial spraying would create a backlash against the government and the Americans, and serve as a recruitment device for the Taliban while doing nothing to reduce the drug trade. This is no side issue: If the program continues to fail, success in Afghanistan will be impossible.
According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the area under opium cultivation increased to 193,000 hectares in 2007 from 165,000 in 2006. The harvest also grew, to 8,200 tons from 6,100. Could any program be more unsuccessful?
The program destroys crops in insecure areas, especially in the south, where the Taliban is strongest. This policy pushes farmers with no other source of livelihood into the arms of the Taliban without reducing the total amount of opium being produced.
Everyone talks about "alternative livelihoods" and alternative crops as the solution to the drug problem. This is true in theory -- but this theory has been tried elsewhere with almost no success. Poppies are an easy crop to grow and are far more valuable than any other product that can be grown in the rocky, remote soil of most of Afghanistan. Without roads, it is hard to get heavier (and less valuable) crops to market -- and what market is there, anyway? It will take years to create the networks of roads, markets and lucrative crops that would induce farmers to switch, especially when government officials, including some with close ties to the presidency, are protecting the drug trade and profiting from it.
In other words, opium production is actually flourishing in the regions where the Taliban is weakest, not where they are strongest. But eradication is aimed at the politically weakest population, those Afghans living in areas dominated by the Taliban. So, the program punishes Afghan farmers who are trying to provide for their families, fails to undermine the Taliban's profits from the drug trade, and does nothing at all about the government officials and warlords profiting from the drug trade in more secure regions. For some Bush administration officials the answer to this problem is spraying herbicides on the crops, and necessarily the heads of Afghan farmers and their families, a policy that inspired a backlash against us in Columbia while sickening the poorest of Colombians and destroying their livelihood.
The only reason we are even that concerned about the opium trade is because of our government's never-ending focus on the "drug war", a policy that has worked to the detriment of civil rights at home, destroyed the social fabric in poorer urban centers, and distorted our foreign policy. The blame for this rests with Democratic and Republican administrations, who find drugs to be an easy target through which to score political points.
The only solution to the opium problem in Afghanistan is to win the war against the Taliban. That should be nearly our sole focus, and we should not be distracted by efforts to carry our drug war across the world to where our soldiers are busy trying to win an actual war. Once that's done, we'll see about cleaning up the opium "problem."