Drugs: Losing the Opium Battle

Back in 2003, U.S. officials worried about the drug economy in Afghanistan, where 80,000 hectares (200,000 acres) were being used to grow poppies to supply three-quarters of the world's opium, the main ingredient in heroin and a major source of funding for the country's divisive provincial politicians.

Those were the days. With Afghanistan now growing nearly 200,000 hectares of poppies and supplying a full 93 percent of the world's opium, U.S. officials are stepping up counternarcotics efforts in the restive southern provinces of Afghanistan, a move that triggered a bloody six-hour gunfight last week. The clash, the first in this year's aggressive new campaign to eradicate poppy fields, killed 25 Taliban militants fighting to protect the crops and one policeman fighting to raze them.

U.S. officials say more extensive but targeted eradication is needed to rein in the billions of narcodollars floating around Afghanistan, which they say funds and arms the escalating insurgency. In its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, released on Friday, the State Department insisted that profits from drug production in southern Afghanistan were lining the pockets of warlords supporting the resurgent Taliban, pointing to the contrast between relatively poppy-free northern provinces and the growing production in the volatile south. Poppy eradication, they say, is a necessary evil in the fight to secure the dangerous and strategically critical southern provinces.

With the spring harvest just around the corner, the coming weeks pose a challenge in the U.S.-led effort to crack down on the Afghan drug economy. Two years of record harvests and evidence of a shift toward larger and wealthier poppy cultivators in the south prompted American officials to revise their floundering poppy strategy this year. Now, as spring approaches, their controversial plans to intensify the eradication campaign are being put to the test.

But concerns remain. Will wiping out the fields of well-connected local warlords set a powerful precedent for future planting seasons, or, as critics protest, will the political fallout from the crop eradication create more problems than it solves?

Opium has long played a role in the Afghan economy, but the industry has skyrocketed in the years since the U.S.-led coalition toppled the Taliban government in 2001. The Taliban used to keep production and sales in check by regulating them, collecting taxes from both farmers and traffickers. Following the invasion, the new administration outlawed the trade, initially cutting it as farmers, fearing widespread confiscations, engaged in a panicked sell-off of their goods.

But in the years since, as the Karzai government has proved too weak to enforce the ban or develop alternative industries, poppy cultivation has revived. In 2007 the United Nations reported a windfall harvest of 200,000 hectares, capping two years of all-time highs that accounted for a third of the Afghan economy. The last report showed a 17 percent rise in poppy cultivation from 2006 to 2007, and a whopping 34 percent rise in opium production, a level expected to be maintained in this year's harvest. According to one State Department official, tens of thousands of hectares of poppies are currently growing right up to the edge of the provincial reconstruction office in the capital and economic center of Helmand.

Just as troubling to onlookers has been the geographic breakdown of the growth. In the northern provinces, where the government exercises a greater degree of control, counternarcotics strategies have generally made production plummet. That didn't work in the south, where five provinces now produce more than 80 percent of all poppies grown in Afghanistan and Helmand alone is responsible for over half the country's cultivation.

Not coincidentally, Helmand and its neighbors are also the most dangerous and divided areas in the country. U.S. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell reported to Congress last week that the Afghan government has control of only 30 percent of the country, estimating that Taliban forces control 10 percent and local strongmen—who fiercely maintain their independence from both of the country's power centers—run the show in the rest. In such lawless areas, antigovernment forces offer credit lines to poppy farmers and collect taxes on their crop, potentially earning up to $100 million in the process.

In response, U.S. officials announced this fall that more aggressive eradication plans were in order. Thomas Schweich, the State Department official responsible for coordinating the $600 million initiative, said the strategy is to get both stronger and smarter this year, expanding and militarizing eradication efforts while taking care to target strikes only at wealthier farms. In addition, he says, the U.S. is bolstering development and judicial reform programs to provide long-term alternatives to the poppy economy. Officials hope more oversight will head off bribes by the "big fish" of the trade looking to steer eradication teams away from their fields.

"This is not the paradigm we've heard in the past—which was true, to some extent—of the poor farmer that's been growing poppy for generations and has nothing else to grow," says Schweich. "If they were poor farmers with no other alternatives to growing poppy, I wouldn't be eradicating their fields. That's counterproductive. [But some] farmers do have access to markets and are using our own irrigation canals and roads to bring their poppy to market. And that's where you need to eradicate."

But critics warn that boosting eradication efforts in unstable areas could prove disastrous, depriving farmers of their only source of income, alienating a key swing demographic and driving large numbers of people to side with the insurgency. None of Afghanistan's legal crops can compete with the income generated from poppies, estimated by the U.N. at $5,000 per hectare. As a result, they say, most farmers are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with warlords demanding taxes on one side and eradicators on the other. Analysts say removing a main source of income before stable governance is established could make last week's resistance a harbinger of many more battles to come.

"[Eradication works] in areas where there is security and government control, so they can deliver programs and invest in other crops and market goods. That cannot work in insecure areas. What people in insecure areas do to manage the risk brought by eradication is not plant other crops—they join the Taliban and keep the government out of their area," says Barnett Rubin, a director at New York University's Center on International Cooperation, who released a report in early February slamming the eradication policy.

In addition, critics say development projects are underfunded and poorly managed, with most of the allocated funds going toward consulting firms and war damage repairs, not alternative livelihood projects. Tangible evidence of the fatter budget and increased focus on development aid this year has yet to reach those on the ground.

"The impression is still that the rich, well-connected landowners are spared and poor farmers are targeted," says one USAID subcontractor, who wished to remain anonymous because of employment concerns. "[Well-connected] Afghans have been dealing with the international community in all sorts of ways for the last three decades and are well versed in how to direct international funds and efforts to fulfill their own personal agendas."

Given the recent U.S. push for additional NATO troops, the debate over muscle versus development will likely spill into a broader divide among the coalition over how to right the crumbling reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. Dissatisfied with the focus and inertia of the war, most European allies have been reluctant to volunteer additional troops, despite public requests by Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Splits are expected to come to a head at a NATO summit in early April, when President George W. Bush has said he will ratchet up pressure for U.S. supporters to cough up military support for the embattled southern regions.

"Dozens of districts in the south are currently no-go zones, not only for international forces but for Afghan government forces. President Karzai can't even make the trip to his home province of Kandahar," says John Sifton, a former Human Rights Watch lawyer who researches Afghan security. "In a situation where the government can hardly put a footprint down enough to really even be a government in remote areas, it's hard to imagine it bringing the enforcement measures needed to reduce opium. So you have to say, 'Well, is this really high on our list of priorities right now?'"