Defeating Afghanistan's drug fix

Forced eradication and legalization are attractive options that are bound to backfire.

It's spring in Afghanistan, and poppy farmers are smiling. Heavy rains this winter portend a bumper opium harvest. Afghanistan already produces nine times the total opium output of the rest of the world combined, and while last year's crop was the largest the country has ever produced, this year's crop is likely to be even bigger.

The exploding drug trade is both a symptom and a source of instability and corruption. It is not just a case of evil drug traffickers taking advantage of a good but ineffective government to facilitate terrorism and insurgency – as frequently portrayed. The traffickers and their agents are all too often corrupt government officials themselves, who forge alliances of convenience with insurgent groups, including the Taliban, to protect their businesses and distribution routes.

There are no quick solutions to tackling this growing plague. But that doesn't mean policymakers can't make progress in undercutting the drug trade. The challenge will be to keep them focused on smart courses of action that yield long-term results – and away from superficially "easy" policies that end up backfiring.

In fact, when it comes to controlling drug production in Afghanistan, it is much easier to say what won't work than what will. For example, large-scale forced eradication (for example, by aerial spraying of crops, as advocated by some US policymakers), will not work. It might cause a temporary dip in production – but it will also force prices higher, thereby increasing incentives to produce more the following year. Indeed, it will probably benefit the drug traffickers who have a stockpile to sell at inflated prices, while farmers whose livelihoods are destroyed could be driven into the arms of insurgent groups.

Another superficially attractive solution that has been getting increasing attention is that of legalizing, or "licensing," the production of opium for medicinal purposes.

But this option would solve a problem that does not exist and fail to address several that do.

The International Narcotics Control Board categorically asserts there is already an oversupply of opiates for medical purposes. But even if there was an unmet demand, Afghanistan is perhaps the world's least suitable place to meet it. Countries such as Turkey, India, and Australia are already licensed to supply opiate raw materials. These countries, with their effective law enforcement and an absence of widespread armed conflict, are much better placed to meet any such demand than conflict-ridden Afghanistan.

Simple economics would also make the scheme unappealing to Afghan farmers. The sole reason that opium fetches high prices is that it is illegal. Licensed opiates fetch a fraction of the price. Farmers would have no incentive to produce opium legally as long as there is a black market offering much higher profits for the illegal output. And the logistical challenges are immense. Licensed poppy crops would need to be carefully regulated. But who could realistically expect the fledgling Afghan government to implement this complex and bureaucratic process – particularly in the violent and lawless south, where opium production has exploded despite an absolute ban for the past six years?

Given the involvement of corrupt officials, efforts to tackle this scourge must start at the top. There are about 25 to 30 key traffickers running the trade in Afghanistan, according to a recent UN/World Bank report. These figures should be targeted with asset seizures, and put on trial or extradited to the US or Europe. NATO should support efforts by Afghan counternarcotics forces to destroy labs and warehouses and interdict drug shipments. Regional linkages between Afghan, Pakistani, and Iranian trafficking networks also need to be addressed, and the international community should pressure Pakistan to arrest its traffickers and corrupt border security officials.

For the small farmers there must be comprehensive rural development to tackle some of the world's worst poverty. This should particularly target the areas that are not yet producing on a large scale, to help inoculate communities from the lure of traffickers. This means infrastructure such as roads, irrigation, and cold storage; providing seeds and fertilizer; training in marketing and distribution for other crops; and wider community development that offers schools, healthcare, and security. Once there are sustainable alternatives to poppy, manual eradication becomes easier.

Of course, it is always going to be difficult to make major inroads into drug production in Afghanistan without addressing the international demand for illicit drugs. The most realistic medium-term aim is to clean up the government so that officials linked to drugs do not undermine the spread of the rule of law and turn the country into a narco-state.

It will take many years of effective, coordinated, government action, backed up with sustained international support, to undercut the drug trade. Ostensibly quick and superficially easy solutions are merely a distraction from the real work needed to defeat Afghanistan's drug fix.

Nick Grono is the vice president for advocacy and operations at the International Crisis Group in Brussels. Joanna Nathan is a Crisis Group senior analyst based in Kabul.

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