While the Obama administration is debating whether to escalate the war in Afghanistan, there may be a better solution for stabilizing the country. No one expects Afghanistan to become a peaceful, self-sustaining democracy overnight. However, without an effective strategy to turn the situation around, the surge is likely to result in the unnecessary loss of human lives and billions of dollars, while failing to remove the major reason for the instability in the region–the heroin trade.
Since its liberation from Taliban rule in 2001, Afghanistan’s opium production has gone from 640 tons to 8,200 tons in 2007, reportedly falling to 7,700 tons in 2008. The latest U.N.’s International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) report, however, is based only on the production in seven provinces where NATO and US forces are fighting the Taliban. Indeed, Afghanistan continues to supply over 90% of the global opiate market.
“Insecurity and drug production and trafficking…are very much inter-related,” INCB President Hamid Ghodse told a news conference in London. According to Ghodse, “It is very difficult to say which is the cause and which is the effect.”
But former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalili is clear: “This is a source of income for the warlords and regional factions to pay their soldiers. The terrorists are funding their operations through illicit drug trade, so they are all interlinked,” he stated in 2005. Since then, the situation has greatly deteriorated.
The Commander of the U.S. Forces (USFOR-A) and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, rightly views the illegal drug trade as particularly dangerous because of its corrupting effects on the Afghan government.
An effective solution for the escalating violence, devastating corruption, crime and growing radicalization in Afghanistan has been available for a while, but previous administrations failed to implement it. The Obama Administration should initiate a new policy that includes drug eradication while providing the farmers with subsidies and skills for viable economic alternatives.
The Administration should fund the final studies necessary to implement the innovative and safe poppy eradication method that previous U.S. governments spent significant resources developing. This entails the use of mycoherbicides, naturally occurring fungi that control noxious weeds. Unlike chemical controls now in use to eradicate illicit plants such as coca shrub in Colombia, mycoherbicides assail only the targeted plant, rendering its cultivation uneconomical. These fungi continue to live in the soil, preventing the future growth of the opium poppy plant, but are harmless to other crops, people and the environment.
On Dec. 29, 2006, then President George W. Bush signed Public Law 109/469, of which Section 1111 requires the Office of National Drug Control Policy to conduct an efficacy study of mycoherbicides’ use on the opium poppy and coca shrub. Yet, the one-year study was never conducted. President Obama should immediately authorize the completion of the study.
The use of mycoherbicides in Afghanistan, combined with adequate enforcement by the military, will diminish the production of heroin. It will also cut off the Taliban’s and the warlords’ hefty money supply, which in addition to funds from the Saudis and the Gulf States, fuels political corruption and the war. This strategy would free up the $150 to $200 billion now used to fight the drug trade and its byproducts–crime, addiction, diseases, accidents, etc.–in the U.S., and make these funds available to help fight terrorism directly.
Unfortunately, while the Obama administration is considering a new policy to stabilize Afghanistan, it has already shifted focus from the War on Drugs to the War on Drug Traffickers. Instead of eradicating the opium crops in Afghanistan, the Administration is now targeting Taliban-linked traffickers and drug labs. But focusing on the criminal elements alone will do little to stop opium cultivation, or boost the economy, if only because there are very few alternatives for most Afghan farmers. Afghan opium production accounts for 97% of the country’s per-capita annual GDP, or $303 of $310.
Implementing this new strategy, while subsidizing the Afghan economy until other crops and industries can replace the illegal heroin trade, seems a better way for America to succeed in fighting the Taliban and the endemic corruption. It would also free up resources for an array of social and governmental reforms, which should be clearly defined and strictly supervised. With no heroin to fund terrorism and subvert the economies and political systems of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the American agenda could take a huge leap forward.