Hasty poppy eradication in Afghanistan can sow more problems

Peasant farmers left without new livelihoods are heeding the call to join the insurgency.

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The deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan reveals the high price of the slow pace of reconstruction there: Winning Afghan hearts and minds isn't as quick or easy as growing poppies.

Later this month, when British troops take over counterinsurgency operations in the south of Afghanistan, they will face a dangerous mixture of growing insurgency, a population increasingly frustrated by a lack of economic progress, and another bumper crop of opium.

Increasingly, the Taliban insurgents have joined forces with some of the Pashtun drug traffickers in the south, protecting drug convoys for payoffs and carrying out joint operations. Meanwhile, interdiction efforts have only consolidated the drug industry, strengthening the hold of local warlords - now police chiefs and government officials - on the drug trade while crowding out small traders.

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The popular discontent in Afghanistan with the failure of Kabul to deliver security, social services, and basic livelihood is steadily growing. Although much has been achieved, expectations of improved living conditions have been growing at a much more rapid pace. Increasingly, the discontent is directed against President Hamid Karzai himself. The popularity he enjoyed after the presidential elections in 2004 is slipping. By the fall of 2005, unemployment and lack of basic necessities had paralyzed Kabul with protests.

Especially in the fight against the narcotics economy there has been no significant progress. What has been hailed as success - the reduction of the area under poppy cultivation in 2005 - has failed to provide viable alternatives for poppy growers.

In 2004, Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan was estimated to produce approximately one-fifth of Afghanistan's opium. In 2005, its opium cultivation had decreased by as much as 96 percent. While considered an eradication success story, significant economic hardship and major social discontent followed. For many peasants, it meant a 90 percent reduction in their total cash income, by as much as $3,400. The Cash-for-Work programs designed to provide alternative livelihoods, such as digging wells, offered compensation significantly below income losses. The programs also failed to reach the poorest and most vulnerable. The impoverished peasants have been forced to curb basic food intake and sell long-term productive assets, such as livestock and land. Many have been left feeling betrayed that the promises to help make a new life were unmet, and many are going back to planting poppies this season. The situation in Helmand to the south is analogous.

The most pernicious side effect of the efforts in Nangarhar and Helmand is the inability of peasants to repay their accumulated opium debt. Creditors who lend money to peasants to make it through the winter months and buy seeds for the following season - the only microcredit system available - double or triple the peasants' debts if they are not repaid in the same year. The peasants then have to grow even more poppy than they would have otherwise. If peasants take too long to repay, they face the possibility of being killed by the traffickers and having their houses seized. They are left with two options: Give away their daughters (girls as young as 3) as brides to the creditors or abscond to Pakistan.

It is this migration to Pakistan that especially threatens the counterinsurgency and state-building efforts in Afghanistan. First, migration forced by eradication further alienates the populace from the Kabul government and the international community sponsoring eradication. Second, the refugees easily become fodder for the insurgency. It was Afghan refugees indoctrinated in the radical madrassahs of the Deobandi movement in Pakistan who comprised the bulk of the Taliban's fighters in the 1990s. The shelter most easily available to Afghans driven out by eradication is once again the madrassahs. They try to indoctrinate the current refugees to reject the Karzai government and the very concept of democracy and instead join the Taliban insurgency in a jihad against Karzai and the United States. All too easily, the Taliban insurgents who use Pakistan as a haven can remind them of the good times when the Taliban sponsored poppy cultivation during the 1990s.

The success in curbing drug production in Afghanistan has thus come at the price of undermining state-building and empowering the insurgency. After being the lead nation on counternarcotics, Britain is now also taking over counterinsurgency operations. Succumbing to the desire and international pressure to achieve speedy progress on drugs will ultimately undermine both efforts.

Vanda Felbab-Brown is a research fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

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