The 2004 rise in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan may be as high as 50 percent, according to USDA Deputy Secretary Jim Moseley, who traveled to Afghanistan in April to review its agricultural development. That would be a record crop. The United Nations has estimated Afghanistan’s poppy crop at a near-record 3,600 tons in 2003, more than three-quarters of global supply. USDA’s estimates put this year’s crop at about 5,400 tons. Moreover, opium has spread to areas where it was previously unknown, most notably the Shomali plain north of Kabul (New York Times, April 11).
While the income generated by the farmers is not high – opium prices are normally pegged at a level that provides growers more per hectare than they would receive with any other crop, allowing for the labor-intensive nature of opium cultivation – opium farming is one of the few sources of income in much of rural Afghanistan (San Francisco Chronicle, April 11).
Despite the importance of narcotics money in providing income and alleviating the debt crisis in rural Afghanistan, there is little sympathy at the grass roots level for narcotics cultivation. The Afghans – a people who listen avidly to radio news broadcasts – want to abide by international and Islamic norms, as they perceive them. While the Afghan government is committed to cooperation in narcotics eradication, there is a widespread perception among Afghans that efforts requiring desperately poor farmers to pay the price for reducing the supply of narcotics to wealthy countries are unfair. More sophisticated Afghans compare this with the unwillingness of the wealthier countries to pay the political price of reducing narcotics demand through draconic action, even though this is often suggested in those countries as an effective approach in Afghanistan (Canadian Press, April 8).
While being aware of the limits of any supply-side focus in counter-narcotics, Washington has recently put into practice new approaches that have the potential to be more effective than those tried in recent years by the United States, Britain and the UN. Intelligence was received this spring confirming that opium cultivation was being used to fund the armed opposition in some areas (AP, April 8). According to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Robert L. Charles, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-I-Islami and the Taliban are certainly involved in narcotics, and Al-Qaeda may be as well (San Francisco Chronicle, April 11). However, the extent of opium cultivation north of the Hindu Kush suggests that the evolving problem transcends political divisions.
Military action has become a legitimate counter-narcotics policy option. Afghans, with British support, have in the past two months raided over thirty laboratories in the Pashtun-dominated eastern province of Nangarhar (AFP, April 8; Xinhua, April 8). Those engaged in operations there have reportedly acted to destroy some 8-10 percent of that province’s opium crops; some 2,500 hectares have been affected. U.S. air strikes have taken out other laboratories, and an airmobile U.S. operation has even taken out a laboratory in distant Badakhshan, a long-standing center of activity for the northward flow of opium (The New York Times, April 11).
The advantages gained from these actions are likely to be fleeting – these key value-added stations in the opium chain were previously located across the border in Pakistan and will likely return there. Targeting those who profit from the trade is likely to be more effective than pressuring Afghan farmers, based on previous counter narcotics campaign experience. But the United States should not look to conditions such as those that made possible the eradication of most of Colombia’s coca production to occur in Afghanistan until there has been a substantial increase in reconstruction and in the demonstrated effectiveness of the Afghan government in getting resources to the grass roots.
At the Berlin conference in April, President Hamid Karzai said that narcotics were “undermining the very existence of the Afghan state,” and he has since declared a jihad against narcotics (Canberra Times, April 24). Karzai has demonstrated that the United States and its international partners can expect strong support from the Afghan government. But Karzai’s ability to deliver that support remains limited. Until the Afghan government and – more important – the Afghan economy are rebuilt to a greater extent, it may be wise to keep in mind that focusing on supply side counter-narcotics in Afghanistan could prove to be counterproductive.
A little counter-narcotics action can have a strong deterrent effect. The recent campaign in Nangarhar may have destroyed only a small percentage of one province’s opium, but it has the potential to deter other growers (BBC, April 6). Military actions targeted at key nodes in the opium traffic, such as the U.S. raid into Badakhshan, also may be more effective in the near term than is a broad-front strategy. By asking too much from this admittedly critically important program in the short term, the United States could undercut both the Afghan countryside and the government.