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Back in business with opium

Back in business with opium

DESPITE the more than a decade-long, exorbitantly expensive US-led counternarcotics operation in Afghanistan, poppy cultivation in that country has not declined. On the contrary, it is expanding at an alarming pace, from the militant-infested southern region — which traditionally led in this activity — to the relatively stable northern and western regions of the country.

According to the latest data by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, poppy cultivation has increased to 224,000 hectares/553,516 acres (2014) since the fall of the Afghan Taliban, a terrifying triple-fold increase. Given that the US has funnelled $7.6 billion into poppy eradication, the phenomenal surge calls into question the effectiveness of counternarcotics intervention in Afghanistan.

Currently Afghanistan produces more than 80pc of the world’s illicit opium. Poppy drives the country’s underground economy and accounts for one-third of its GDP. It also fuels the insurgency, with the Taliban reportedly making $100-150 million annually from opium trade. The lure of big money that revolves around this crop corrupts the state machinery.

Before the 1979 Soviet invasion, poppy was a marginal crop in Afghanistan. However, regional warlords resorted to poppy cultivation to help fund the Mujahideen resistance against the occupation. After the Soviet withdrawal, successive regimes continued to use poppy as a means to generate revenues to bankroll their political ambitions.

Poppy was earlier not the crop of choice for most Afghan farmers, but while drug lords in Afghanistan — who tend to gain the most from this illicit trade — also intimidate them into growing it, it must be conceded that as in other countries, farmers in Afghanistan also look for lucrative returns from their meagre landholdings to better their lives. The country’s agriculture sector is plagued with recurrent problems. That, coupled with the prolonged insurgency, has persuaded many farmers to turn to poppy cultivation. Estimated as yielding eight times more income than wheat, it has come to be viewed as the magical crop to break the cycle of poverty. Moreover, opium is like a spot and futures market, with traders providing credit for future production. It also serves as collateral for instant credit.

After the Taliban downfall, US-led international assistance zeroed in on eliminating poppy, which was viewed as the root cause of all evils in Afghanistan. The US military think tank designed a comprehensive counternarcotics strategy. Special anti-narcotics forces were organised and deployed across Afghanistan to crack down on poppy cultivation. It was believed that this would not only break the back of the powerful drug lords, but also stem the flow of traditional funding for the Taliban to spread unrest. Little did they realise the strategy would eventually, after more than a decade in operation, end up boosting poppy production and, consequently, the Taliban insurgency!

The problem was that although the strategy was diverse, the counternarcotics forces relied heavily on the use of brute power to bulldoze the standing poppy crop. The biggest sufferers were the farmers, whose livelihoods were damaged by this ill-conceived approach of the US military think tank. Though a compensation package was designed, the inadequate benefits it offered hardly reached the farmers due to a variety of reasons — mainly corruption in the bureaucracy.

Employment of brute power by anti-narcotics forces has thus proven to be counterproductive, driving large numbers of poppy farmers towards the Taliban for succour. This development in turn has further fuelled insurgency in Afghanistan’s restive poppy belts. One can even say that the poppy farmers were mobilised in favour of the Taliban by the US’s poppy eradication strategy. The poppy eradication programme can in fact be considered the single-most ineffective programme in the history of US foreign policy for Afghanistan. The late Richard Holbrooke, the US administration’s coordinator for its Afghanistan policy, had himself admitted that the strategy was ineffective and wasteful.

Opium profits fuel insurgency, but so does the act of destroying the farmers’ poppy crop. A more patient approach was required to eliminate poppy from both the minds as well as the fields of the farmers. Policy experts should have pressed into service the extensive network of democratically elected, village level community development councils to bring down poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. This was doable through social mobilisation along with appropriate performance-based incentives for the CDCs that would have enlisted their support and made the poppy eradication effort a community-driven initiative, rather than a state vs farmer confrontation. The utilisation of funds meant for anti-narcotics operations is another concern. These funds are largely employed for the construction of community infrastructure like roads, bridges, etc. Without undermining the importance of infrastructure, one nevertheless fails to understand how it can eradicate poppy. Instead, the funds should have been used specifically for their intended purpose.

The strategy should emphasise crop substitution and alternative livelihoods, along with setting up a minimum support price structure in Afghanistan. This would create more jobs in the agriculture sector and make farm incomes more secure and lucrative. Moreover, the neighbours of Afghanistan need to be part of the solution too, for they are either accomplices in or victims of the opium trade. Both should work in tandem to improve intelligence-sharing and prevent cross-border smuggling.

Alternatively, the option of legalising poppy cultivation can also be explored. With a village governance structure like the CDCs in place, legalisation and regulation of poppy in Afghanistan may not be a far-fetched idea. Such legalisation has already taken place in several countries such as Australia, India, France, Turkey, etc. This will not only solve the problem of illicit poppy production in Afghanistan but also shore up revenues, and bring the state into a support relationship with the farmers.

The writer works as an international advisor on governance and is the author of In Search of a New Afghanistan.

Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2015

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