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Destruction or development: the war on drugs in Afghanistan

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January 27, 2005

Destruction or development: the war on drugs in Afghanistan

At the insistence of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the U.S. has agreed not to follow through with a planned aerial spraying program intended to eradicate opium production in Afghanistan. In November, the Bush administration raised its drug-busting budget in Afghanistan from $130 million to $780 million with $300 million earmarked for eradication programs, half of which was to fund the aerial spraying of opium fields.

Habibullah Qaderi, the newly appointed counter-narcotics minister, cited that taking away the livelihood of farmers would lead to security problems in certain parts of the country. While re-stating the Afghan government's committment to halting cultivation, Qaderi insisted that the economics behind the country's opium problem must be taken into consideration.

In providing 87% of the world's opium and heroin derivatives, Afghanistan has become economically dependent on the drug trade. Opium crops yield ten times the income of traditional crops for growers, contributing $4 billion in profits in 2004 (amounting to 60 percent of the country's legal economy) and employing 2.3 million people, with up to 30% of households dependent on the cultivation of opium for their income.

Because of this dependency, the Afghan government is concerned that while spraying programs may slow the trade in the short term, it will only do so at the cost of leaving a large portion of the population without a livelihood. Without international aid money to subsidize alternative sources of income, he stated, security problems would inevitably arise. And with local and parliamentary elections scheduled for this spring, the issue of security is weighing heavily on Karzai's government.

From the perspective of the U.S. government, however, the drug trade in Afghanistan is also a source of income for Al Qaeda and Taliban elements still operating in the country, making the war on drugs also part of the war on terror. While concerted efforts have been made to train an Afghan police force to cut off the drug trade, counter-narcotics personnel are severly understaffed, and with international troops in the country without a drug enforcement mandate, Afghan resources are stretched impossibly thin.

Experts point to a more widespread, if lower profile, problem associated with opium cultivation in Afghanistan. With addiction rates in neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran significantly higher than average, the death toll from AIDS and drugs in the region will ultimately far exceed deaths from terrorist acts. U.S. recognition of this aspect of the opium trade has been slow in coming. With only 10% of narcotics arriving in the U.S. coming from Afghanistan, it wasn't until the U.N. declared the country at risk of becoming a narco-state that the U.S. administration raised its committed funds to $780 million.

The only other country named a narco-state is Colombia, where the U.S. government spent over $2 billion between 2000 and 2003 on a similarly designed program with mixed results. Despite large-scale eradication, coca production in the country has remained steady, to the extent that two grams of cocaine bought in the U.S. are now one fifth the price in 1981. While Colombia government officials have lauded the program as a "resounding success", the Washington Office on Latin America dubbed the war on drugs in the southern hemisphere a failure.

Ustina Markus, an analyst writing for ISN Security Watch, fears that the Afghan aid package may suffer a similar failure. "Given that a massive aid package had little impact on stopping the Columbian drug trade," Markus writes, "the prospects for Afghanistan are not good."

With doubts surrounding the potential of short-sighted eradication programs as an alternative solution, analysts are stressing that a long-term, well thought out committment to economic recovery will be the most effective means to halting the cultivation of opium in Afghanistan. But while farmers are unlikely to voluntarily stop growing opium without some kind of financial incentive, subsidies for legal crops could cost more than forced eradication in a country where long periods of drought make alternative crops difficult to grow, and where roads, irrigation networks and markets have been devastated after decades of war.

While finding a means to developing alternative sources of income for Afghan farmers may prove a difficult task, the consequences of failing to do so are relatively simple. Abdul Wahid, a former opium producer who switched to traditional crops after officials told him to "wait and see", states, "If we get help, maybe it's gone for good. If not, we'll plant again."

Nathan Lepp


» Christian Science Monitor: Crop spraying draws controversy in Afghan drug fight

» Eurasianet: Afghanistan's antidrug minister vows action but says farmers need aid, alternative incomes

» ISN Security Watch: War, drugs and the war on drugs

» Sydney Morning Herald: Quality drugs, by the kilo

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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