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Toronto Globe & Mail publishes IWP student’s article on Afghan drugs

IWP student Aidan Kirby, a researcher for the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, co-authored an op-ed for the Toronto Globe and Mail on the threats posed by the Afghan drug trade on that nation's newly elected government and fragile democracy. The op-ed appeared on October 28, 2004.

Ms. Kirby received her B.A. in history and philosophy from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and her M.A. in international affairs from Carleton University in Ottawa. She is currently enrolled in the certificate program in intelligence at IWP. The points of view expressed in the column are those of the authors and not of the Institute.

The narco-state of Afghanistan

Bathsheba Crocker and Aidan Kirby

Globe & Mail, Toronto, Canada, 28 October 2004

Afghanistan held its first democratic presidential election this month. Despite an inadequate supply of international monitors, rudimentary logistical support, and widespread anticipation of violence and intimidation, this "experiment in democracy" was encouraging.

Voter turnout was high, and there was no large-scale violence. There were some complications, but procedural oversights do not seem to have jeopardized the legitimacy of the election's outcome in the eyes of the Afghan people. Afghans appear enthusiastic about the experience and optimistic about what it promises for the future. So, does this mean Afghanistan is moving toward democracy?

In some ways, yes. But the nation's thriving drug trade continues to threaten the potential of Hamid Karzai, or any other democratically elected president, to foster democratic development and maintain security in this still fragile state. Afghanistan's poppy industry has re-emerged and exploded. The Taliban's ruthless approach to curbing the trade had resulted in the stockpiling of drugs and soaring prices, with no attention given to the economic plight of farmers. When the warlords regained control of many territories in 2001, those involved in the industry were desperate to return to this livelihood.

Projections are that the 2004 poppy crop and cultivation area will reach record highs, potentially up 40 per cent to 60 per cent from last year and approaching 250,000 acres. Afghanistan is the world's leading supplier of opium, and revenues from opium production, processing and trafficking equal 50 per cent to 60 per cent of the country's GDP. These figures suggest a crisis, but donors have not prioritized the issue.

Britain is leading efforts to combat poppy growing, and will contribute £90 million over the next three years to address drug issues. The United States will spend $190 million this year on counter-narcotics efforts, with the vast bulk going to equip Afghanistan's counter-narcotics police. This may sound like a lot of money, but it is dwarfed by the U.S. annual spending to combat drugs in Colombia.

Overall per capita reconstruction assistance for Afghanistan falls short on a long list of recent international peace-building efforts – far less than Bosnia, East Timor, El Salvador, Haiti, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Mozambique, not to mention Iraq. Donor pledges to Afghanistan pale in comparison to the revenue drawn in by the drug trade itself. Income from opium in 2002-03 was 70 per cent higher than money dispersed for international aid projects. Figures such as these are startling, given our awareness of the nexus between drug smuggling and the financing of terrorist operations worldwide.

Current policies also suffer from a flawed analysis of the problem. The prevailing assumption is that opium farmers are getting rich off these crops, and that has led policy-makers to conclude that the best way to curb the activity is to destroy the crops. In fact, most farmers make very little off their poppy crops; most profits are collected higher up the chain, by the traffickers and warlords who, in turn, intimidate peasants to continue farming, in part by forcing them into debt.

Crop eradication efforts – themselves inadequate in Afghanistan – do more to economically devastate the most vulnerable than they do to dismantle the industry. Once crops are destroyed, drug prices go up; with nothing to farm, farmers cannot pay off their loans. Some Afghan farmers have resorted to selling their daughters to settle debts. Desperate farmers usually return to growing poppy as the only viable way to escape the debt cycle.

The implications of a growing opium industry in Afghanistan are profound. The industry threatens the country's prospects for economic and political development and empowers those groups seeking to undermine Afghanistan's reconstruction efforts.

Afghanistan's warlords largely reap the rewards of this lucrative industry, helping to solidify their control of rural regions and making it difficult for the central government to function. Cross-border trade has a spillover impact in neighbouring states; it has fostered internal conflict and institutionalized corruption in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. Both countries' governments sift profits from drug sales. Without a meaningful effort to address poppy farming in Afghanistan, further destabilization of the region seems inevitable.

This problem demands a more nuanced and sophisticated strategy. Current proposals call for a more aggressive crop-eradication effort and discount the potential of alternative crop programs, arguing that few other crops compete with opium in terms of profitability for farmers. U.S. and British assistance for alternative crop-development programs in Afghanistan are woefully inadequate. Farmers must be encouraged to make a lasting transition to licit farming activities, through, say, increased access to credit and alternative livelihoods. Security must be improved throughout Afghanistan, and coalition forces should have an explicit mandate to aggressively tackle crops, production and trade.

This is more than a U.S. problem: 95 per cent of heroin on Europe's streets is derived from Afghan poppy. But counter-narcotics efforts by the U.S. and its allies fall short. Without taking away from the importance of Afghanistan's presidential election, it is worth noting that successful reconstruction and democratization in Afghanistan ultimately depend on a reinvigorated counter-drug strategy. Otherwise, Afghanistan could well fall prey to predictions that it is destined to become a narco-terrorist state.

Bathsheba Crocker co-directs the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. Aidan Kirby is a researcher with the project, and is a certificate student at the Institute of World Politics.