Op-Ed

Afghanistan’s Opium Wars

Vanda Felbab-Brown

As NATO braces for a spring Taliban offensive in Afghanistan, many in the Bush administration, the Congress and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime are calling for it to take on a prominent role in combating the narcotics trade. Although this task is meant to help Afghanistan repress the worrisome, if predictable, expansion of its opium economy, it will greatly hamper NATO’s effectiveness. NATO’s crucial role is to establish security throughout the country—and not to dilute its focus in eradication and interdiction missions that are presently bound to fail.

It is not that NATO should simply turn a blind eye to the opium trade. Rather, it should focus on where it can make a difference. Success in counterinsurgency requires the ability to establish a permanent presence through ever-larger sectors and to consistently protect the population from the insurgents’ reprisals, thus winning the minds part of the hearts-and-minds struggle. Despite the extension of duty for several thousand U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, NATO’s troop density is still far too low to provide such security. Expanding into eradication will only further thin out NATO’s presence and jeopardize its ability to control areas and to persuade the population that it can protect them from the Taliban. Without this assurance, the population will at best sit the fence, and at worse succumb to Taliban’s pressure.

Even more importantly, participating in eradication will cost NATO the loss of the population’s hearts. The rural population is critically dependent on the opium economy for basic livelihood. Given the absence of alternative livelihoods, eradication greatly antagonizes the population against those who carry it out—local tribal elites, state officials, and Kabul. Eradication carried out so far has allowed the Taliban to reintegrate itself into the opium economy and rebuild some of its political capital with the population by offering itself as a protector of the population and its poppy fields. Pauperization caused by eradication has generated a new wave of economic refugees to Pakistan, many of whom have been replenishing the ranks of the Taliban. Moreover, eradication motivates the population not to provide intelligence to government and NATO. Reliable, accurate, and actionable human intelligence is the key to winning a counterinsurgency campaign. The willingness of the population to provide such intelligence on the Taliban is already minimal, and NATO’s direct participation in eradication will halt it altogether.

Yes, the Taliban is profiting financially from the Afghan drug trade (in addition to profiting politically from eradication), but eradication will not cut off financial resources to the Taliban to render it physically weak and easy to defeat. The Taliban was able to regroup and rebuild its organization in Pakistan and Afghanistan between 2002 and 2004 without access to large profits from the opium economy, which was at that time dominated by various warlords, many of whom are now government officials at all levels of the Afghan government. It was able to replenish its physical resources by donations from the Middle East and collections in Pakistan as well as by participating in other smuggling activities. In fact, there has not yet been one belligerent group that has been bankrupted by eradication. (Even after years of fumigation and under pressure from the Colombian military, the FARC is showing no signs of hurting financially.) But while eradication will fail to weaken the Taliban physically, it will only strengthen it politically and critically undermine NATO’s intelligence acquisition.

Participating in interdiction which focuses on apprehending traffickers and destroying labs is somewhat less problematic for NATO, but even such a mission is not without crucial problems. Steadily expanding in Afghanistan since the 1980s (with the 2000 eradication campaign by the Taliban being temporary and unsustainable), the opium economy deeply underlines much of Afghanistan’s political, economic, and social life. The traders and traffickers are not alien criminals. Many are members of tribal elites with crucial sway over the population. Drug interdiction against them will induce them to pressure the population to stop cooperating with NATO, if not more directly support the Taliban. It can easily jeopardize the reconstruction and economic functions of the provincial reconstruction teams, thus further weakening the minimal efforts at long-term alternative development and again contributing to losing the hearts and minds of the population. Interdiction should be carried out to eliminate at least some corruption and impunity of the key traffickers, but it should be the domain of special national interdiction units, not NATO.

NATO does have an important role to play in counternarcotics—namely, to defeat the insurgency. Without stability throughout the country and security on the ground, counternarcotics measures will not succeed. Alternative livelihood programs will not have a chance to take off. Without stability, even repressive measures, such as eradication, will only lead to cycles of replanting, social strife, and strengthened insurgency.