Editor’s Note: The following article is one of a series of reports based on the author’s fieldwork in Afghanistan in April 2012. In this piece, she analyzes the evolution and outcome of counternarcotics policies in Afghanistan, with a special emphasis on the policies of the Obama administration. Read Felbab-Brown’s other recent reports on Afghanistan in “
Firefight in Kabul
” and “
The Road to Jalalabad
.” She also writes about the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. forces in “
The U.S.-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership
“, ISAF’s logistical challenges and the complex political realities in northern Afghanistan in “
Crossing the Salang
,” and the Afghan Local Police and other self-defense forces in Afghanistan in “
The Afghan Local Police: It’s Local, So It Must Be Good…Or Is It?
Narcotics production and counternarcotics policies in Afghanistan are of critical importance not only for drug control there and worldwide, but also for the counterinsurgency, stabilization, economic, and rule-of-law efforts in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, many of the counternarcotics policies adopted during the 2000s decade had serious counterproductive effects on these objectives.
In a courageous break with thirty years of counter-narcotics policies that focused on ineffective forced eradication of illicit crops as a way to reduce the supply of drugs and bankrupt belligerents, the Obama administration wisely decided in 2009 to scale back eradication in Afghanistan. Instead, its counternarcotics strategy emphasized selective interdiction of high-level and particularly Taliban-linked traffickers and comprehensive rural development.
But the effectiveness of the administration’s well-thought-out counternarcotics strategy has been challenged by major implementation difficulties. Effective implementation is ultimately dependent on achieving robust progress in improving security and governance in Afghanistan — the former very tenuous at best, the latter overwhelmingly characterized by corruption, abuse, and incompetence. Critical problems have also arisen as a result of misguided policies in the field. Interdiction has lost its selective focus on high-level Taliban-linked traffickers and become indiscriminate in targeting small-level farmers. In most of Afghanistan, including some of the most strategic areas, alternative livelihoods efforts have not amounted to comprehensive long-term development. And eradication and bans on poppy are still going on, once again emiserating farmers and driving instability and conflict.
Why Scaling Back Eradication Was a Good Decision
After several years of essentially laissez-faire toward poppy cultivation, far more aggressive interdiction and eradication policies were undertaken in Afghanistan between 2004 and 2009. Interdiction was supposed to target large traffickers and processing laboratories. Immediately, however, the effort was manipulated by local Afghan powerbrokers to eliminate drug competition, particularly drug-trade business belonging to their rivals. Instead of targeting top echelons of the drug economy, many of whom had considerable political clout, interdiction operations were largely conducted against small vulnerable traders who could neither sufficiently bribe nor adequately intimidate the interdiction teams and their supervisors within the Afghan government. The result was a significant vertical integration of the drug industry in Afghanistan and an intensified dependence of small traders on powerful patrons. A second negative impact of the way interdiction was carried out was that it allowed the Taliban to integrate itself back into the Afghan drug trade. Having recouped in Pakistan, the Taliban was once again needed to provide protection to traffickers targeted by interdiction.
Manual eradication was carried out by central Afghan units trained by Dyncorp as well as by regional governors and their forces. Immediately, it provoked violent strikes and social protests against it. Another wave of eradication took place in 2005 when reduction in poppy cultivation was achieved. Most of the reduction was due to the suppression of cultivation in Nangarhar province where, through promises of alternative development and threats of imprisonment, production was slashed by 90 percent.
However, alternative livelihoods never materialized for many. The Cash-for-Work programs reached only a small percentage of the population in Nangarhar, mainly those living close to cities. The overall pauperization of the population there was devastating. Unable to repay debts, many farmers were forced to sell their daughters as young as three as brides or abscond to Pakistan. In Pakistan, the refugees frequently have ended up in the radical Deobandi madrasas and have begun refilling the ranks of the Taliban. Apart from incorporating the displaced farmers into their ranks, the Taliban also began to protect the opium fields of the farmers, in addition to protecting traffic. In fact, the antagonized poppy farmers came to constitute a strong and key base of support for the Taliban, denying intelligence to ISAF and providing it to the Taliban.
By 2009, eradication had had the following — overwhelmingly negative — effects: It did not bankrupt the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban reconstituted itself in Pakistan between 2002 and 2004 without access to large profits from drugs, rebuilding its material base largely from donations from Pakistan and the Middle East and from profits from another illicit economy, the illegal traffic with licit goods between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Rather that weakening the insurgency, eradication strengthened it by driving economic refugees into the Taliban’s hands. Eradication also alienated the local population from the national government as well as from local tribal elites that agreed to eradication, thus creating a key opening for Taliban mobilization. Moreover, the local eradicators themselves were in a position to best profit from counternarcotics policies, being able to eliminate competition – drug business and political alike – and alter market concentration and prices at least in the short term and within their region of operations.
Eradication was thus complicating counterinsurgency and stabilization policies in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration’s decision to focus instead on interdiction and rural development was the right decision.
A Selective Interdiction Policy Has Become Indiscriminate
Under the Obama Administration, the interdiction policy has been geared primarily toward Taliban-linked traffickers. Going after Taliban-linked traffickers was the sole counternarcotics mandate of ISAF forces, though other international and Afghan counternarcotics units could target other traffickers as well. ISAF’s counternarcotics operations have sought to reduce the flows of weapons, money, drugs, precursor agents, and improvised explosive device (IED) components to the Taliban, with the goal of degrading the Taliban’s finances and physical resources through interdiction. Although hundreds of interdiction raids have now been conducted, especially in southern Afghanistan, and large quantities of opium and IEDs have been seized in these operations, it is questionable whether the impact on the Taliban’s resource flows has been more than local. Large-scale military operations to clear the Taliban from particular areas, such as in Marja, Helmand, have affected the insurgents’ funding capacity and resource flows in those particular areas.
But so far, the cumulative effects of the narcotics interdiction effort to suppress financial flows do not appear to be affecting the Taliban at the strategic level. This is because the Taliban fundraising policy has long been to tax any economic activity in the areas where the insurgents operate – be they sheep herding, such as in the north, illegal logging in the east, or National Solidarity Program projects in the center.
The strongest effect of focusing interdiction on Taliban-linked traffickers appears to be at least temporarily to disrupt its logistical chains since many of its logistical operatives handle both IED materials and moving drugs. In combination with ISAF’s targeting focus on mid-level commanders, the prioritization of the counternarcotics-interdiction focus is probably palpably complicating the Taliban’s operational capacity in Afghanistan’s south, where both the military surge and counternarcotics efforts have been prioritized.
But in the zeal to disrupt the Taliban logistical chains and weaken the Taliban’s command structures, especially at the operational middle-level, the ISAF interdiction policy lost the selectivity carefully crafted into the design of the strategy. ISAF units often do not have an easy way to ascertain whether someone is a middle-level commander or not. What does it take to be a middle-level commander – being in charge of three, ten, one hundred Taliban? What does it take to be a Taliban supporter? The dual-focus of night raids and house searches on both capturing “high-value” (whatever that actually means) targets and searching for drugs and explosives has blurred the distinction between farmers and high-value drug or Taliban operatives. Does the fact that a household has opium make the household members Taliban supporters? Obviously not, since many rural Afghans do not hold their assets as cash in a bank, but rather as opium stocks at home. ISAF house searches that seize or destroy any found opium, perhaps under the belief that they are destroying Taliban stockpiles, can in fact wipe out the entire savings of a household. Thus in areas that have been subject to intense interdiction raids, such as Marja or Nad Ali districts of Helmand, the effects of supposedly selective and hearts-and-minds-oriented interdiction can resemble blanket eradication. Often, their impact on the economic well-being of a household is often more detrimental than that of eradication because such searches can wipe out all of the long-term assets of a household and because after eradication, a family can still have a chance to replant. And the effects on stability and the counterinsurgency campaign are the same as from eradication: intense alienation of the affected population from the Afghan government and ISAF forces and susceptibility to Taliban mobilization.
Although the interdiction policy has lost its selectivity at the level of distinguishing small and high-level traders, its selectivity on the Taliban connection has come with problematic side-effects. One of them is to signal to Afghan powerbrokers that the best way to conduct the drug business in Afghanistan is to provide counterinsurgency services, such as intelligence, militias, and real estate property, to ISAF, or to be aligned with the government of President Hamid Karzai. As a high-ranking ISAF official in Kandahar told me in the fall of 2010, “In the current struggle for Kandahar, our nightmare is to have to take on at the same time the Taliban and Wali [the then-alive Ahmed Wali Khan, President Karzai’s brother and the top powerbroker in Kandahar]. But we understand that he has alienated some people in Kandahar.” A former high official of the U.S. PRT in Kandahar similarly explained to me the difficulties the international community has faced when trying to impose redlines on powerbrokers such as General Razziq, now the police chief of Kandahar and a well-known Taliban hunter and previously a warlord and smuggler from the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar. “We gave them [Razziq and other Kandahar powerbrokers] redlines. But very quickly they violated all the redlines. But they are effective in getting things done. We can’t go after them at the same time as we are fighting the Taliban. When the Taliban is defeated, the Afghans will take care of the powerbrokers themselves.” Tolerating the rapacious and thuggish behavior of such useful powerbrokers may be a price necessary to absorb in order to maximize the effectiveness of counterinsurgency on the battlefield in the short term, but when the powerbrokers-cum-drug-traffickers who thus get themselves an out-of-jail card and obtain vast power and profits are some of the most abusive and most reviled warlords, the legitimacy of the Afghan government is critically undermined.
Especially early on, the Obama administration accorded great importance to fighting corruption in Afghanistan. Various Afghan civilian structures, such as the Major Crime Task Force, and equivalent units within ISAF, such as its anti-corruption task force, Shafafyat, were stood up. But Washington demanded that anti-corruption reforms take place with an intensity that ignored Afghan realities and political complexities — a system in which the highest government officials as well as the lowest ones, line ministries, banking centers, and most international contracts are pervaded by corruption. The lack of prioritization as to what corruption needed to be tackled first and unequivocally thus produced only dramatic promises from President Karzai to fight corruption, with little actual follow up.
Moreover, as the Obama administration decided to wind down its military presence in Afghanistan, Washington began vacillating again in its determination to take on corruption.. Many argued that tackling corruption is a luxury the United States can no longer afford; instead it needs to prioritize “stability” by working through local powerbrokers, instead of being obsessed with their criminal entanglements and discriminatory practices. The downside is that Afghans overwhelmingly resent the lack of respect for law by the powerful in their country and consider themselves governed by an illegitimate thuggish mafia regime. The resulting level of dissatisfaction and alienation among Afghans is so high that it is difficult to see how without significant improvements in governance or at least a major expansion of patronage networks, the current political order in Afghanistan can be stable beyond 2014.
Rural Development Has Often Been Ineffectively Designed
Throughout most of the 2000-2009 period, alternative livelihoods programs were slow to reach the vast majority of the Afghan population, and largely failed to address the structural drivers of opium poppy cultivation. The lack of security and increasing insurgency in the south halted many of the alternative livelihoods projects. A legal microcredit system was lacking in most of Afghanistan. Although some areas, such as Helmand had been showered with aid, much of it failed to reach ordinary farmers. Projects such as the Kajaki Dam, the centerpiece of USAID development efforts in the south of Afghanistan for much of the decade, failed to be completed because of insecurity. At the same time, economic development programs even in the more permissive environments, such as in northern Afghanistan, often simply did not materialize although bans on poppy were secured through promises of alternative livelihoods.
The Obama administration set out to redress this glaring hole in the counternarcotics and stabilization policy in Afghanistan and emphasized rural development, allocating about a quarter billion dollars a year to the effort. But immediately, the economic development programs were plagued by vacillation between two competing understandings of the purpose of economic development projects: Is their purpose to buy off the population and wean it off from the insurgents or are they designed to produce long-term sustainable development?
The buy-off concept has included so-called quick-impact projects carried out by the U.S. military with money from the Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP) or through the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) as well as so-called “economic stabilization projects,” also known as District Delivery Program or District Stabilization Framework, carried out by USAID. The latter were conceived as short-term cash-for-work programs, lasting weeks or at best months. Their goals have been to keep Afghan males employed so that economic necessities do not drive them to join the Taliban and to secure the allegiance of the population who, ideally, will provide intelligence on the insurgents. Under this concept, U.S. economic development efforts have prioritized the most violent areas. Accordingly, the vast majority of the allocated funds went to the most contested provinces of Kandahar and Helmand where the U.S. military surge was focused. In 2010, for example, USAID allocated $250 million for the two provinces.  And in Helmand’s Nawa district, USAID spent upward of $30 million within nine months, in what some dubbed “[the] carpet bombing of Nawa with cash.” With Nawa’s 75,000 people, such aid amounts to $400 per person, while Afghanistan’s per capita income is only $300 per year.
Although U.S. government officials emphasize that these stabilization programs have generated tens of thousands of jobs in Afghanistan’s south, many of the efforts have been unsustainable short-lived programs, such as canal cleaning and grain-storage and road building, or small grants, such as for seeds and fertilizers. Characteristically, they collapse as soon as the money runs out, often in the span of several weeks. Nor has adequate consideration been given to the development of assured markets; consequently much of the produce cultivated under the USAID-contracted programs will possibly not find buyers and rot. Many other structural drivers of poppy cultivation, such as a lack of legal microcredit, rural infrastructure, and processing facilities and poor productivity and profitability of legal crops, also persist. Nor is there robust evidence that the stabilization programs have secured the allegiance of the population to either the Afghan government or ISAF forces or resulted in increases in intelligence from the population on the Taliban.
Because of the complexity and opacity of Afghanistan’s political, economic, and contracting scene, many of these international programs have continued to flow to problematic, discriminatory, and corrupt powerbrokers, generating further resentment among the population, and intensifying Afghanistan’s rampant corruption and lack of accountability. At other times, they have spurred new tribal rivalries and community tensions.
Nor have these programs yet addressed the structural deficiencies of the rural economy in Afghanistan, including the drivers of poppy cultivation. A microcredit system, for example, continues to be lacking throughout much of Afghanistan. In fact, many of the stabilization efforts, such as wheat distribution or grant programs, directly undermine some of the long-term imperatives for addressing the structural market deficiencies, such as the development of microcredit or the establishment of local Afghan seed-banks and seed markets and rural enterprise and value-added chains. Shortcuts such as the so-called Food Zone in Helmand and similar wheat distribution schemes elsewhere in Afghanistan are symptomatic of the minimal short-term economic and security payoffs (but substantial medium-term costs) mode with which the internationals have operated in Afghanistan. The result: persisting deep market deficiencies and compromised rule of law.
There is a delicate three-way balance among long-term development, the need to generate support among the population and alleviate economic deprivation in the short term, and state-building. A counternarcotics “alternative livelihoods” program in Afghanistan provides a telling example: Aware of the deeply destabilizing effects of poppy suppression in the absence of alternative livelihoods and yet under pressure to reduce poppy cultivation, Helmand Governor Mohammad Gulab Mangal, widely acclaimed as a competent and committed governor, launched a wheat-seed distribution project during the 2008-09 growing season. In order not to grow poppy, farmers were handed free wheat seeds. This program proved popular with the segments of the Helmand population who received the free wheat and the program was emulated throughout Afghanistan and continued in 2010.
Poppy cultivation did decrease in Helmand in 2009, and many enthusiastically attributed the results to the wheat distribution program, rather than low opium prices. And yet there are good reasons to doubt the effectiveness of the program, at least with respect to development and even governance. Because of land density issues in Afghanistan, the lack of sustainability of the favorable wheat-to-opium price ratios under which the program took effect, and the limited ability of wheat cultivation to generate employment, wheat turned out to be a singularly inappropriate replacement crop. Indeed, much of the wheat seed ended up being sold in markets rather than sown.
Due to the insecurity prevailing in Helmand at the time, the program was undertaken without any field assessment of what drives poppy cultivation in particular areas of Helmand and in Afghanistan more broadly.Yet because most people welcome free handouts, the program was popular. But it also became politically manipulated by local administrators and tribal elders who sought to strengthen their power. Although the program was deficient from a development perspective, it brought immediate political benefits to those who sponsored it, including the political machinery of President Hamid Karzai who at that time was seeking reelection. Good governance was thus equated with the immediate handouts and their political payoff without regard for long-term economic development, sustainability, best practices lessons, and optimal decision-making processes.
At the same time, the wheat program and other economic stabilization programs often set up expectations on the part of the population for free handouts from the central government and international community without being economically viable and sustainable in the long term and without requiring commitments from the local community. Thus, many of the CERP and stabilization programs have encouraged the Afghans to expect payoffs for any activity consistent with the interests of the international community, even if the activity is also in their own interest and they would have carried it out anyway.
In line with the 2014 transition, USAID has committed itself to phase out the economic stabilization initiatives and short-term cash-for-work programs and instead transition to economic development programs that focus on long-term capacity building and sustainability. The Afghan government has also embraced such a policy shift. A fundamental change of this sort in the orientation of the development assistance programs is highly desirable. But the forthcoming reduction of the U.S. and ISAF’s presence in Afghanistan and the anticipated smaller budgets after the 2014 transition have diverted much of USAID’s and other international organizations’ attention and energies from field implementation of the programs to programmatic restructuring of their assistance efforts. One large question to be yet resolved is what entities – international or Afghan – will replace the PRTs, which are to be retired in 2014. However problematic in their delivery of economic assistance programs – mostly quick-impact projects rather than sustainable development programs – and whatever their other shortcomings, the PRTs have been the principal provider of economic assistance in some of the most isolated and insecure areas of Afghanistan. It is not automatic that Afghan line ministries – notoriously incompetent and corrupt – or other international development entities will fill the PRT void.
Even with the transition imperatives and priorities, immediate political pressures from the bottom up continue to reinforce ISAF’s predilection for short-term quick-impact projects. Sustainable development requires a lot of time, but the Afghan population has been highly impatient to see some minimal improvements and often has demanded handout programs without regard for long-term sustainability and desirability. Thus, in 2011 again, many short-term quick-impact projects were extended and new large budgets were allocated to them.
Moreover, the persisting, however substantially reduced, insecurity even in high-profile focus areas, such as Marja and Arghandab, can also threaten the limited short-term “stabilization” programs. The Taliban has strongly intensified its campaign to assassinate Afghan government officials, contractors, and NGOs who cooperate with ISAF and the Afghan government. Both implementers and Afghan beneficiaries of the economic programs have been killed. This intimidation campaign has scared off some Afghans from participating in the programs and may again result in local Afghan officials and internationals being more than ever locked up in their compounds and rarely venturing into the field among the Afghans after 2014. Such isolation greatly hampers the internationals’ ability to understand the complex and political dynamics that define any particular area of Afghanistan and hence to design effective assistance programs.
U.S. and ISAF officials emphasize that in cleared areas in the south, shops have reopened on the streets and bazaars seem livelier. Yet Afghan shopkeepers often say that they are trying to make as much money as possible in a short window of opportunity because they expect security to deteriorate again after 2014 and they may then lose all business opportunities. Thus, even for these stabilization programs as for any economic development efforts, security is a critical prerequisite. The faster the international community rushes out of Afghanistan leaving still weak Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the more economic programs in Afghanistan will be undermined.
Counterproductive Eradication Is Still Going On
The Obama Administration has encountered withering criticism from Russia for its counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan. Suffering from drug and infectious-disease epidemics and a broader demographic crisis, Russia has complained that its drug and population problems stem from the large supply of heroin from Afghanistan. Refuting overwhelming evidence from forty years of counternarcotics efforts that actions on the supply side tend to have minimal effects on drug-use trends, and unwilling to invest in appropriate drug prevention and treatment facilities, Russia has demanded aggressive eradication in Afghanistan. It also provides counternarcotics training to Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But despite Russia’s vociferous complaints, eradication is still going on Afghanistan. The Obama Administration defunded only centrally-led eradication by an Afghan eradication unit that the United States had trained. Eradication efforts led by Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics and provincial governors are still carried out. If the occasional rare major eradication drive or poppy cultivation ban, such as in Nangarhar in 2008 (described below), is discounted, eradication can been seen to have consistently hovered between 2500 and 4000 hectares a year, before and after the Obama Administration’s counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan was adopted.
The current Afghan-led eradication continues to be associated with the same problems that plagued the previous centrally-led eradication. Powerful elites are able to bribe or coerce their way out of having their opium poppy fields destroyed or to direct eradication against their political opponents. The poorest farmers, most vulnerable to Taliban’s mobilization, bear the brunt of eradication. Alienated farmers often join with the Taliban to oppose eradication and entire regions are destabilized as a result. The violent protests against eradication and attacks on the eradication teams in Nangarhar’s Khogyani, Shinwar, and Achin areas this spring provide a vivid example. Eradication targets are often set without regard for their effects on the economic conditions of the farmers, local conflict dynamics, and counterinsurgency efforts. Officials from Kabul often arrive in a provincial capital, round up governors and police chiefs and order them to destroy a predetermined number of hectares of poppy: In the western province of Herat, overall one of the most stable parts of Afghanistan and a major locus of drug smuggling routes, the Ministry of Counternarcotics decided in April of this year that eradication should take place in the Shindand district where insecurity and Taliban presence have been strong, just as ISAF and ANSF were planning to undertake clearing operations there. Any hearts and minds efforts were bound to be eviscerated by the eradication drive, and intelligence flows from the population on the Taliban bound to dry up. At the same time, the intensity of eradication is miniscule — in the low thousands of hectares per year — when compared to what is necessary to significantly suppress poppy cultivation in Afghanistan – requiring eradication of over one hundred thousand hectares a year – and to drive cultivation to one of Afghanistan’s neighbors. (Without a significant reduction in global demand, suppression of poppy cultivation in one place will merely drive it to another.) For many years to come, such suppression could only be achieved through sheer brute force since alternative livelihoods cannot be stood up quickly. And of course, such an effort would destroy the larger stabilization prospects for Afghanistan.
Not all poppy suppression efforts in Afghanistan always take the shape of bulldozing the poppy plants. In Helmand, the province with most intense poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, where Governor Mangal has been held up as the paragon of good governance, poppy suppression has also taken the shape of destroying farmers’ water pumps, especially in the poor, insecure, recently liberated poppy areas north of the Helmand river. That approach may minimize how much poppy survives purely on rain water, but it also kills the production of legal crops and destroys the farmers’ means of procuring water for consumption and other household use. Not surprisingly, this approach has effectively played into Taliban’s mobilization efforts.
Bans on cultivation can have as devastating an economic impact on the rural population as eradication. Although hailed as hallmarks of great governance, such as in Nangarhar or Balkh, they are ultimately as politically and economically unsustainable as premature eradication before alternative livelihoods are in place. In Nangarhar, for example, Governor Gul Agha Sherzai has managed to keep cultivation negligible or limited — driving cultivation down from a 2007 cultivation peak of 18,739 hectares