How to Win the War on Drugs

Published on March 27, 2009 in Eurasianet

The challenges currently facing Afghanistan and the US-led international coalition are cumulative. They did not pop up overnight. They have been evolving since the Taliban was driven from power in late 2001. In the case of narcotics trafficking, failure to properly assess the problem’s causes and effects is encouraging misperceptions.

The problem of narcotics has been brought upon our country by the past three decades of war, destruction, and human suffering. We know from international experience that global demand for narcotics finds supply in environments where state institutions are weak, where general instability is high and where poverty is rife.

Although Afghanistan is coping with such dire conditions today, the number of drug-free provinces in the country has increased from six in 2006 to 18 in 2008 — meaning that no opium poppies are harvested in more than half of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. This significant progress has been achieved in provinces where the government is in firm control, delivering alternative assistance to farmers and prosecuting drug traffickers.

However, where the writ of the government is weak or absent from the very beginning, poppies have continued to bloom, despite the presence of international forces. Indeed, 98 percent of all of Afghanistan’s opium is grown in just five narco-provinces in the southwest (Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Farah, and Nimroz). In these areas, there is a permanent Taliban presence, and organized criminal groups remain strong, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

President Hamid Karzai has said repeatedly that “if we do not eliminate drugs, drugs will eliminate us.” Of course, fighting narcotics is not Afghanistan’s business alone nor can the government do it by itself unless it receives help from our allies and those who join us in the belief that narcotics is a common enemy of the whole international community — one that takes millions of young lives across the world every year, one that causes HIV/AIDS, one that finances urban violence and crime, and one that increasingly fuels global terrorism and funds the Taliban’s brutal terrorist activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

US President Barack Obama’s administration seems to understand the need for a comprehensive solution. In his remarks on the new US strategy for Afghanistan, Obama stressed a need for non-military forms of assistance. “To advance security, opportunity, and justice — not just in Kabul, but from the bottom up in the provinces — we need agricultural specialists and educators; engineers and lawyers. That is how we can help the Afghan government serve its people, and develop an economy that isn’t dominated by illicit drugs,” Obama said on March 27, as he introduced the new US strategy for Afghanistan.

In the Afghan context, it is clear that the best weapon against narcotics is gradual, but steady prevention in the form of improved governance and rule of law, sustainable alternative development, and increased security. Quick fixes such as forced eradication of poppy crops merely target the effects of poppy production, not its underlying causes. We know from international experience that eradication alone is ineffective. Decreases in cultivation in one area can simply lead to increases in another, and news of impending eradication efforts can provoke growers to disperse cultivation over a larger area, much like investors diversifying portfolios to hedge risk. Counter-narcotics efforts, then, must be enacted contemporaneously across the country in a strategic manner.

Above all else, farmers must be given the opportunity and necessary resources to grow alternative crops. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most Afghan farmers are sharecroppers, whose landlords dictate what they can grow. Consequently, the high-value opium poppy is the crop of choice.

Liberating farmers from this cycle of dependence requires that they have access to both land and alternative financing, in particular micro-lending. Further, to make alternative crops more lucrative to farmers, investments in infrastructure are needed. In addition to supplies of water, seed and fertilizer, farmers must have access to reliable farm-to-market roads or to cold-storage facilities to preserve products for later export. Today, besides the increasingly insecure ring road connecting Kabul to Kandahar, Afghanistan lacks a road system, and only about 9 percent of the population has access to electricity.

Once effective alternatives are available, farmers would have an incentive to try to transition away from poppy cultivation without paying a financial penalty. An initial grace period could be extended, beyond which noncompliant farmers would face crop eradication and criminal prosecution.

To be effective, counter-narcotics efforts must target all players in the long chain of the opium trade, including traffickers, distributors and dealers, who pull in about 80 percent of the export value of Afghan narcotics. Essential to the prosecution of these kingpins is a functional justice sector, with coordinated law enforcement and judicial activities. Inadequate compensation, training and equipment currently limit the ability of the approximately 8,000 Afghan policemen and 1,500 judges from effectively combating this threat.

The international community recognized these shortcomings in the justice sector and their deleterious effects on the counter-narcotics mission at the very first and last Rome Conference on the Rule of Law in Afghanistan in June 2007. With $360 million pledged and a timetable established for instituting a National Justice Program, the conference outlined much-needed reforms. This conference underscored how staggered, long-term reforms to the justice sector are vital, especially at the provincial level.

But even with international support, trans-national drug traffickers will continue to permeate Afghanistan’s borders and undermine the rule of law in the absence of coordinated prosecution and enforcement efforts among Afghanistan, its neighbors and consumer countries. We need proactive regional cooperation to implement the United Nations Security Council resolution 1818 of July 2008 to curb the flow of precursor chemicals into Afghanistan and export of narcotic products out of our country to the end markets through neighboring states.

The tenets of Islam, Afghan culture and the Afghan legal system all prohibit the production, consumption and trafficking of drugs. Poor Afghan farmers would honor these tenets right away if they were given a legal and viable option. Poppy cultivation has declined 19 percent over the 2007-2008 period, but this success could be reversed if we do not deliver an effective combination of carrots to aid poor sharecroppers and sticks to enforce the law against high-value drug traffickers as the main drivers of drug production in Afghanistan.

The international community must review and effectively double their counter-narcotics efforts on the global and regional levels, and to recommit firmly to providing Afghanistan with long-term law enforcement and alternative development resources to win the drug war in the country.

M. Ashraf Haidari is the Political Counselor of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC. His e-mail is