Why US must help Afghanistan kick the heroin-trade habit

Just as President Obama prepares to reduce the US role there, Afghanistan sees a big rise in opium cultivation. The US cannot leave the nation it invaded as a narco-state.

AP Photo
An Afghan man pours gasoline over a pile of confiscated drugs and alcohol during a drug-burning ceremony on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan, Nov. 12. Around 20 tons of opium, heroin, and hashish were set on fire, officials said.

Sometimes nations, like people, can become addicted to the drug trade – and then choose to kick the habit. Thailand, Turkey, and Lebanon, for example, have greatly reduced heroin trafficking, while Colombia has cut into its cocaine production. Might Afghanistan, the world’s largest source of heroin, be next?

The prospect seems daunting. On Wednesday, the United Nations reported that Afghanistan will have a record crop this year in cultivation of opium (the source for heroin). The increase is nearly 50 percent higher than 2012. Over the past three years, Afghan farmers have markedly expanded their fields of poppies (the source for opium).

This should worry President Obama as he decides on the level of American involvement in Afghanistan after a planned withdrawal of combat forces next year. The number of people in the United States reportedly using heroin has risen by half since 2007. And because Afghanistan provides more than two-thirds of the world’s heroin, countries with a high number of addicts, such as Russia and Iran, have a stake in what happens in that war-torn nation after the NATO troops exit.

Having invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to oust the Al Qaeda-linked Taliban, the US should not leave the country to become a narco-state. “I cannot see a successful conclusion to the challenges that affect Afghanistan today if they do not include progress and forward movement in terms of illicit drug and drug abuse,” say William Brownfield, the State Department’s assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement.

Since 2002, the US and Britain have poured billions into various antidrug programs in Afghanistan. Not all have worked, especially the eradication of poppy fields by foreign soldiers. The latest focus is on Helmand Province, home to half of the the country’s opium production. Farmers there are being steadily persuaded – by incentives and threats – to grow wheat instead of poppies.

And with foreign help, an Afghan counternarcotics police agency and a special drug court are nabbing more traffickers and growers. Afghan troops are also still trying to eradicate poppy fields, often at great risk to themselves.

But these efforts are being overwhelmed as farmers (the majority of Afghans) prepare for a big drop in foreign spending next year. The opium trade, which now makes up 15 percent of the economy, is seen as an easy substitute. The Taliban, too, are demanding more revenue from the heroin trade. And with a big election next year, corrupt politicians are tapping drug money to pay their campaigns.

Richard Holbrooke, the late US special envoy to Afghanistan, wrote in 2008: “Breaking the narco-state in Afghanistan is essential, or all else will fail.” While the US must maintain its support of the antidrug efforts, the Afghan people and their leaders must decide at some point to fight this addiction to heroin profits – as well as curbing the rising number of drug addicts. How soon can that happen? Mr. Brownfield says it will take decades.

Perhaps. But Afghanistan can find hope from the examples of other countries that have curbed their drug trade. In Mexico, leaders of the three main political parties struck an unexpected deal last year to cooperate in key reforms for the country, in large part because they realized drug lords had become so powerful and were filling a vacuum left by squabbling politicians. It’s not too late for Afghanistan to follow suit.

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