Fending Off Failure in Afghanistan: The Opium Factor

Vanda Felbab-Brown joined other Afghanistan experts on the New York Times’ Room for Debate to discuss additional deployments to Afghanistan and specialized forces needed for the counterinsurgency operation.

The success of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan requires greater military resources to take the momentum away from the Taliban and improve security. It is also necessary to improve governance and rebuild trust among the Afghan population.

While Afghan forces ultimately need to provide security themselves, they are not ready yet and there is no way to easily and quickly double their numbers. As the poor quality of the Afghan police shows, greater numbers of badly trained forces will do more damage than good.

Where to deploy any additional American forces is a difficult decision since across the board, troop deployments in Afghanistan are too thin and haven’t succeeded in providing security even to major cities in the south.

Any new forces should focus on Kandahar City where the widespread perception is that the Taliban controls major parts of this strategic and symbolic place. Such a deployment will be all the more important given that Canadian forces are scheduled to leave the area in 2011.

While the south needs an urgent infusion of forces, some reserves need to be left for the north, which is far less stable than many assume and where Taliban mobilization of Pashtun minorities and refugees and efforts to provoke intra-tribe violence have increased dramatically.

As a result of the opium poppy ban, Nangarhar province in the east has also become destabilized. Not only have the strategic Khogyani, Shinwar, and Achin districts become essentially no-go zones for the government and non-governmental organizations, but Jalalabad has also become far less secure, with a resulting cascade of economic problems and a rapid rise in crime.

The insertion of U.S. Marines to Helmand was partially predicated on the notion that the Taliban would stay and fight to protect the poppy fields. Poppy protection is one of the core reasons that Afghans in those areas have supported the Taliban. A new strategy of scaling back eradication (refocusing on interdiction and rural development), announced by Richard Holbrooke earlier in the summer, provides a critical opportunity to separate the Taliban from the population.

Eradication did not have a chance to bankrupt the Taliban anyway. But poppy production is highly mobile, as is the Taliban. Without security, counternarcotics efforts won’t be effective, and counterterrorism efforts will be severely hampered.