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."

Military security, economic development, political reform—NATO has to accomplish all three, in sequence. The strategy is to start out locally, in a village or region where success is more likely, then spread out with each success. NATO chiefs call it the "ink-spot theory," a term from classic counterinsurgency doctrine. In some provinces, it's well under way, in the form of Provincial Reconstruction Teams, 21 of them at the moment—joint civil-military operations that work closely with local authorities, identify needs, and then fill them, at least to the extent security allows.

One problem is that, in many areas, security doesn't allow much; life is too dangerous for development to take hold. (Several nonprofit organizations have pulled out after seeing too many of their specialists killed.) Another problem is that the operations are uneven and diffuse. A "provincial development center," which is supposed to set a common agenda for the PRTs, hasn't met since April. Money abounds, from governments and the private sector, but there's no mechanism for fast-track contracting. The PRTs themselves each combine a dozen or more entities with no clear hierarchy. "I call it a Franken-agency," said the deputy commander of a PRT in southern Afghanistan. "It's a composite organization bolted together. Somebody gives it a jolt of electricity. Let's see how it lumbers along." Some lumber well, some don't.

Still, Afghanistan is making "unspectacular progress," as one NATO political adviser put it, and that's good in two ways—the progress itself and the modesty of the claim. Unlike Iraq in the days just before and after Saddam fell, you don't hear wide-eyed officials singing prophecies of Afghan Jeffersons or de Tocquevilles.

The writers and analysts who went on this NATO-sponsored trip last week were handed several "mission statements" by various officers. None of them put it quite so starkly, but they all boil down to this: Create an environment sufficiently secure to let the Afghan government muddle through.

Gen. David Richards, NATO's commander in Afghanistan, was most direct. "Don't try to impose Western precepts on what is basically a post-medieval society," he said. "People here want basic things. They want them quickly. Go to places that need governance. Listen. Send in engineers. Within a week, send in bulldozers. Build roads. Don't talk about sophisticated structures of government or demands for gender equality."

Put in these terms, if the West is willing to pour in a lot of money, materiel, and manpower (though far, far less than we've squandered in Iraq) and stays put for, say, a decade, the task is feasible.

Consider what's gone on here the last quarter-century. The United States helped the mujahideen kick out the Soviet invaders—then we abandoned the place; the Cold War was won, who cares about Afghanistan? The Taliban filled the vacuum and opened the gates to al-Qaida. After 9/11, the United States helped the Northern Alliance kick out the Taliban—then, remarkably, left the place once again, or at least the southern provinces. The Taliban once more moved in. (The surge of fighting in the south these last few months stems not so much from the Taliban's return—they came back a while ago—as from the West's return, prompting Taliban resistance.)

An anarchic Afghanistan is in nobody's interest. The country's poppy fields account for 87 percent of the world's opium and heroin supply. They also fill the Taliban's coffers. The return of Taliban rule will wreak havoc not only here but across the border in Pakistan and beyond—maybe, as before, far beyond. If the United States and NATO packed up tomorrow, the place would fall apart for sure. In the end, preventing that dim prospect is what this operation is all about.

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