Reducing Demand for Poppy Inside and Outside Afghanistan

Despite several years of a “poppy-fever” gripping Washington and some in the international community about Afghanistan’s widespread drug economy and sensationalist commentary that Afghanistan is drowning in its poppy, the Obama administration has managed to develop a clear-headed picture of the problem and a counternarcotics strategy that, for the first time since 2001, has a chance of being effective.

Instead of focusing on counterproductive eradication of the poppy crops and targeting the most vulnerable segment of the drug trade – the farmers – the new policy emphasizes rural development, including creation of legal livelihoods, and interdiction of drug traffickers.

Yes, the illicit economy is highly problematic. Yes, the Taliban derives about $100 million a year from protecting the drug convoys and the poppy fields, and yes, the large-scale illicit economy feeds corruption. It also has other undesirable effects, including long-term marcoeconomic ones. And yes, the drug economy needs urgent attention. But it also needs a smart policy.

Poppy is not the mother of all of Afghanistan’s problems: the profound and multifaceted state-weakness is. Neither is poppy the source of the Taliban insurgency. Instead, the sources are the ineffectiveness of the Afghan state in providing essential public goods, including rule of law, the predatory behavior of Afghanistan’s official and informal elites, the fact that in 2002 the Taliban was never fully defeated and could use Pakistan safehavens for a recovery while security forces in Afghanistan have been too few, and a sense among Ghilzai Pashtuns that under the post-Taliban regime they are being marginalized.

Spraying or mowing down the poppy will address none of these problems. Nor will it bankrupt the Taliban: eradication has not yet bankrupt belligerents anywhere. And even if it did, the Taliban has other sources of income. Indeed, it recovered in Pakistan between 2002-2004 largely without access to profits from drugs.

Instead, in the third poorest country in the world where the drug economy represents between a third and a half of the country’s GDP – a size unprecedented in the history of the modern drug trade – eradication will only strengthen the Taliban by driving the alienated rural population whose poppy fields have been subject to eradication into the insurgents’ hands. In fact, this has precisely been the effect of eradication so far.

The Obama administration understands these complex dynamics. Its new counternarcotics policy is well designed in its broad outline to achieve the goals of narcotics reduction, counterinsurgency success, and state-building in Afghanistan. But it is important that the administration prepares the public and the international community for how long a successful counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan will take place – many years and easily decades. Without this recognition, a right policy can easily be thrown away.

It is equally crucial that the Obama administration does in fact carry out what it announced to be a key component of its overall counternarcotics policy: reducing demand for illicit narcotics in the U.S. The administration should also make this focus on demand a key part of its global strategy and assist other countries in reducing demand.

Finally, the new counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan has an additional plus: It is well-aligned with the preferred drug policy of our NATO partners there who for years did not like the Bush administration preoccupation with eradication.

It is thus ironic that when, after years of inappropriate policies and international disagreement about their focus, the new U.S. policy is finally in sync with the Europeans and Canada, the Russian government has decided to throw a monkey-wrench into the international consensus and call for aerial spraying in Afghanistan.

The Russian government is right to be worried about the drug epidemic that is sweeping its country and its awful side-effects in terms of HIV- and Hepatitis-spread in Russia, further compounding its inauspicious demographic trends. But the Russian government should not fall into the same trap that Washington was in for years – trying to suppress supply without much effect and ignoring the real drug trade drivers at home. Both treatment and prevention are woefully underprovided in Russia and in need of urgent, robust, and much improved effort.