Can freedom and opium coexist in Afghanistan?

Military analysis.
June 21 2006 6:02 PM

Can Freedom and Opium Coexist?

Winning Afghan hearts and minds one poppy farmer at a time.

This is Kaplan's second report from Afghanistan. Click here to read the first part, about NATO's Afghan strategy.

Fred Kaplan with Afghan National Army recruits in Kabul. Click image to expand.
Fred Kaplan with Afghan National Army recruits in Kabul

KABUL, Afghanistan—A military aide at NATO's headquarters in Afghanistan told me a story that explains how hard it will be to win the war here:

An Afghan farmer stops growing poppies and shifts to wheat. But the Soviets destroyed the irrigation system 30 years ago, so he can't grow much. There are no good roads, so he can't deliver what he has grown to market. There's no money for silos, so he can't store the crop for another season. His drug dealer pays a visit, says he doesn't want wheat, and tells the farmer to pay him $3,000—the sum he would have made by selling opium from the poppies—or he'll kidnap the farmer's daughter. The farmer goes to the chief of police, who reminds him that the drug dealer is the regional governor's brother-in-law, and asks him, "Where's the $500 you owe me for protecting your property this year?"

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It's the story, the aide said, of hundreds of farmers all over Afghanistan, and it's a story that is corrupting everything about Afghan life.

Opium poppy production, which totals 4,100 metric tons a year, accounts for a huge share of the Afghan economy—and of the Taliban's operational fund. (If a drug dealer isn't one of the insurgents, he's often coerced into giving them a slice of his revenue.)

In short, Afghan's security problem and its economic problem are interrelated.

More than 20,000 (soon more than 30,000) U.S. and NATO troops are in Afghanistan, trying to keep the country intact. A year or two ago, some military commanders, especially from the United States, Canada, and Britain, thought the best way to deal with the opium-Taliban nexus was simply to torch the poppy fields. But they—along with officers from most of the other NATO nations—soon realized that instant eradication was impractical and counterproductive. Poppy seeds are robust; they can be replanted quickly, require almost no water, last a long time, and are easy to transport. Meanwhile, the torching only alienated the farmers from the government (which was being propped up by those doing the torching) and drove them into the arms of the Taliban.

"This is a counterinsurgency operation; we're trying to win hearts and minds," one high-ranking officer said during a NATO-sponsored visit to Kabul and Kandahar last week. "The last thing you want to do is deprive the farmers of their livelihood."

So, here's the task that NATO commanders now know they must perform: First, rout the Taliban, province by province. Then provide the farmers alternative livelihoods—and the infrastructure (roads, waterlines, and so forth) to sustain them. And they have to do this quickly, to show the people that they can turn to the Afghan government for basic needs—and that, therefore, they don't have to turn to the Taliban.

There's a further complication. The Afghan government isn't up to taking a lead or even providing much support. "There are one or two really able people in President [Hamid] Karzai's Cabinet," a NATO political adviser said, "but otherwise, the civil service is really weak." The army is still in formation. The Treasury's cupboard is bare. The Ministry of Interior has "remarkably little capacity to do anything." Local and regional governments are weaker still, mainly because they have such scant talent, so few resources, and thus so little power.

Finally, there's the pervasiveness of the drug economy. An officer involved in coordinating counternarcotics policy estimated that a quarter-million Afghans are directly involved in poppy production. Worse still is the corruption that the trade has generated. "You won't find more than a handful of politicians in this country," the officer said, "who don't have some hand in the drug business."

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