Former US official accuses Afghan government of stymying anti-opium efforts
Thomas Schweich charges that President Karzai is protecting drug traffickers within his power base, and says the US Defense Department and some NATO allies have also resisted antiopium efforts.
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Mr. Schweich writes that part of the government's resistance to the drug war stemmed from the view that the common conception of poor farmers being driven to the opium trade by lack of alternatives is a myth. His office found that "The poorest farmers of Afghanistan — those who lived in the north, east and center of the country — were taking advantage of antidrug programs and turning away from poppy cultivation in large numbers. The south was going in the opposite direction, and the Taliban were now financing the insurgency there with drug money...." He adds that several reports from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime came to the same conclusion, that "poverty does not appear to have been the main driving factor in the expansion of opium poppy cultivation in recent years."Skip to next paragraph
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Schweich writes that, as a result, he and his office pushed for an aggressive aerial herbicide-spraying campaign to destroy poppy fields in the south. But despite the evidence, the Afghan government promoted the idea that poverty was driving the drug trade and refused to act to destroy poor farmers' crops.
My first indication of the insincerity of [the Afghan government's] position came at a lunch in Brussels in September 2006 attended by Habibullah Qaderi, who was then Afghanistan's minister for counternarcotics. He gave a speech in which he said that poor Afghan farmers have no choice but to grow poppies, and asked for more money. A top European diplomat challenged him, holding up a U.N. map showing the recent trend: poppy growth decreasing in the poorest areas and growing in the wealthier areas. The minister, taken aback, simply reiterated his earlier point that Afghanistan needed more money for its destitute farmers. After the lunch, however, Qaderi approached me and whispered: "I know what you say is right. Poverty is not the main reason people are growing poppy. But this is what the president of Afghanistan tells me to tell others."
In July 2007, I briefed President Karzai on the drive for a new strategy. He was interested in the new incentives that we were developing, but became sullen and unresponsive when I discussed the need to balance those incentives with new disincentives – including arrests of high-level traffickers and eradication of poppy fields in the wealthier areas of the Pashtun south, where Karzai had his roots and power base.
Schweich adds that there have been similar complaints within Afghanistan about the drug trade's ties to the government, accompanied by calls for an aggressive campaign against opium farming.
In September 2007, The Kabul Weekly, an independent newspaper, ran a blunt editorial laying out the issue: "It is obvious that the Afghan government is more than kind to poppy growers.... [It] opposes the American proposal for political reasons. The administration believes that it will lose popularity in the southern provinces where the majority of opium is cultivated. They're afraid of losing votes. More than 95 percent of the residents of ... the poppy growing provinces – voted for President Karzai." The editorial recommended aerial eradication. That same week, the first vice president of Afghanistan, Ahmad Zia Massoud, wrote a scathing op-ed article in The Sunday Telegraph in London: "Millions of pounds have been committed in provinces including Helmand Province for irrigation projects and road building to help farmers get their produce to market. But for now this has simply made it easier for them to grow and transport opium.... Deep-rooted corruption ... exists in our state institutions." The Afghan vice president concluded, "We must switch from ground-based eradication to aerial spraying."
Schweich notes, however, that the Afghan government is not the only obstacle to fighting the opium trade. The US Defense Department has also resisted fighting the drug war, Schweich says, as it "tends to see counternarcotics as other people's business to be settled once the war-fighting is over." He adds that "many of our allies in the International Security Assistance Force were lukewarm on antidrug operations, and most were openly hostile to aerial eradication." He particularly emphasizes the British military's resistance, who "actually issued leaflets and bought radio advertisements telling the local criminals [in the Helmund province where British forces were operating] that the British military was not part of the anti-poppy effort."