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POLITICS: U.S. Taking New Tack on Afghan Poppies

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Jan 26 2010 (IPS) - Counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency often go hand-in-hand in Afghanistan, where the opium poppy trade bankrolls much of the Taliban’s operations and greases political corruption.

That illicit economy is also estimated to provide a third to a half of the GDP of the country, however, and significant numbers of jobs for the population.

The U.S. strategy over the past several years of eradicating illicit crops in order to cut off funding for insurgents has therefore proved counterproductive, according to the Barack Obama administration. Its new counter-narcotics strategy, first announced last summer, will move away from eradication and, instead take a “whole-of-government approach.”

This shift is part of the regional stabilisation strategy unveiled by the U.S. State Department last week, which outlines a plan based around improving the agricultural sector and governance of Afghanistan, largely through the deployment of more civilian experts to act as advisors.

The new approach, says the strategy, “emphasises interdiction, instead of eradication, and has two core goals: (1) to counter the insurgency-narcotics nexus and reduce funding to the Taliban and other anti-Afghan Government forces; and (2) to alleviate the corruption-narcotics nexus and strengthen ties between the Afghan people and their government.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert in the national security implications of illicit economies at the Brookings Institution, says she is “encouraged” by the new policy and that it represents an “intellectual shift” in U.S. counter-narcotics policy.

Speaking at Brookings Monday to promote her new book, “Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs”, Felbab-Brown said the U.S. has historically turned toward counter-narcotics as a means not only of suppressing drug trafficking but of weakening belligerent groups. This, she argues, actually enhances belligerents’ power, chiefly through allowing them to grab political capital.

Wendy Chamberlain, president of the Middle East Institute, agrees. “Eradication drives people into the embrace of insurgents” because they need protection and insurgents provide that protection, as well as food security, she said Monday. “At the end of the day, it’s all about who is going to provide that protection – insurgents or the government.”

It appears Washington is now onboard with that thinking. “For years, the United States supported eradication efforts which did not sizably reduce the size of the regional narcotics trade. U.S. supported eradication also undermined the counterinsurgency effort by targeting Afghan farmers instead of the narco-traffickers,” last week’s strategy report explained.

The surge in U.S. troops to Afghanistan announced by President Obama in December should therefore have a new mandate when it comes to counter-narcotics, but how closely the policy on the ground will resemble the policy on paper remains to be seen.

The Obama administration has crafted a “more balanced approach” than over-reliance on eradication, according to Chamberlain, but she cautions that the right policies – especially when it comes to economic development – can sometimes produce unintended consequences.

“A good policy requires not just the right strategies – which I think we’re about to have – but also adaptability,” she said.

Felbab-Brown has specific concerns about some of the operational aspects. In order to encourage a move away from poppy cultivation, the U.S. has tried to distribute wheat seeds to farmers in Afghanistan, but Felbab-Brown says there has been an overemphasis on wheat, which requires one-tenth the labour required for poppy cultivation, as a replacement crop.

Encouraging other crops that, like poppies, are high in value and labour-intensiveness – such as fruits, nuts and vegetables – would be much better for rural development in Afghanistan, she says.

“Quite simply the opium trade in Afghanistan today provides jobs and these jobs go far beyond cultivation; we have to understand that,” explains Chamberlain. She contends that any counter-narcotics strategy has to focus on job creation.

Suppressing the drug trade through forced eradication therefore allows belligerents – in Afghanistan and elsewhere – to pick up political capital and legitimacy in the eyes of the poor, Felbab-Brown argues in her book. This makes the population unwilling to deliver intelligence on those belligerent groups, among other negative side effects.

This problem of political capital going to insurgents is “particularly pernicious for illicit economies that are labor-intensive and where country is poor,” she said Monday.

There is more political capital to gain in, say, Colombia than in Northern Ireland, she added, explaining that the more labour-intensive an illicit economic activity is – and thus the more jobs and livelihoods it provides – the more political capital belligerents will accumulate from that activity being attacked without viable alternatives first being made available to the rural populations.

Though opiates are banned by Islamic law, taxing poppy cultivation and protecting smuggling rings brings the Taliban 70 to 100 million dollars a year, according to an August report from CRS, which they say is as much as half of their income.

Ninety percent of illicit opium in the world now comes from Afghanistan. Cultivation surged in 2006 and 2007, according to the report, and though it has dropped off a bit in the past couple of years, many attribute this to an overproduction that has outpaced global demand.

To combat both the drug trade and the insurgency, Felbab-Brown says that, rather than eradication, policies should focus on interdiction – in which the supply chain of the illicit poppies is cut off – or a more laissez-faire approach.

“Not destroying the crops is how countries like Thailand and Burma have succeeded in suppressing militants,” she points out. Other options include licensing, which has been implemented with success for gems and diamonds in some African countries, though she thinks this is likely not an appropriate policy for Afghanistan.

Kelbab-Brown also points out that legalisation is not necessarily the best solution and that, in fact, forced eradication is not always wrong in every situation – she says it is the right strategy with regards to marijuana cultivation in national parks in California, for instance – but eradication is a step that is all too often taken too quickly and without considering the full range of its effect.

The Obama administration’s new counter-narcotics strategy may represent a significant step back from that thinking. Chamberlain says the 30,000 surge troops will be used primarily in regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan that are especially dependent on revenue from poppy cultivation. She thinks this may bring the security needed to allow agriculture aid workers to come in to encourage crop diversification as well as other adaptations that will move the country’s economy away from reliance on this illicit trade.

Felbab-Brown is somewhat worried, however, that the administration has not sufficiently informed Congress and the public that the poppy fields will still be there next year. She says the policy will make a difference in the long-run, rather than be overly obsessed with how many hectares of illicit crops are destroyed.

She also cautions that a successful counter-narcotics campaign might move more poppy fields from Afghanistan to Pakistan, saying this is one critical aspect policymakers and military leaders will need to keep their eyes on.

Ultimately, though, she thinks a less eradication-focused policy will bring give them a better chance at winning both the war on insurgents and the war on drugs.

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