All Poppies Must Die

There’s more to counternarcotics than just killing plants

Did you know the one thing missing from Southern Afghanistan was an increased focus on eradicating poppies? After a whopping three day visit to the country, U.S. Army Gen. John Craddock, Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Europe, certainly thinks so. He is pushing for a NATO mandate to eradicate opium crops and “go after traffickers,” or else the Taliban will triumph. Then again, Gen. David McKiernan politely offered a different story, downplaying the need for crop eradication and instead urging a focus on narcotics traffickers. Is there a method to the madness?

Opium is really little more than an indicator—sometimes of the complexity of Western understanding of the region, sometimes of local levels of militant activity, and sometimes merely of a global demand for a very effective mind-altering substance. There is precedent for opium’s legal cultivation in former narco-states, such as Turkey and India. In these cases, growing restrictions have transformed once-illegal enterprises into steady and reliable suppliers for the pharmaceutical industry. Looking further afield, there appears to be much promise in the utilization of poppy for the production of both biodiesel and ethanol—alternative fuels whose sustainable production would seem to offer many solutions to many problems currently plaguing U.S. foreign policy.

But figuring out ways to co-opt opiate smugglers seems to elude not only U.S. officials, but the reporters who cover them. Thomas Schweich, the State Department official in charge of counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan, wrote a bizarre essay in the July 27 edition of The New York Times Magazine, in which he argued several contradictory points. One of the most notable asserted that Afghan famers largely accepted a widespread eradication campaign based on aerial spraying—despite the impassioned editorials against such practices in local Afghan newspapers, local reports of panic and psychosomatic illness in sprayed areas, and even official State Department concerns over the health consequences of certain aerial anti-narcotics compounds.

Schweich also neglected to mention his own involvement in a 2007 U.S. Institute of Peace panel, discussing the ways interdiction, anti-corruption efforts, and increased local security are far more effective than eradication efforts in stemming poppy cultivation (though, according to the transcript, Schweich wanted an eradication policy in place for farmers who did not comply with alternative enforcement measures).

Where were the fact-checkers looking at Mr. Schweich’s 5,500 words of contradictions? The very simple fact underscoring the difficulties of curtailing opium cultivation in Afghanistan is that, put simply, opium is the local economy in many areas of the country. Because USAID can’t provide direct cereal crop assistance to other countries, it also can’t give farmers realistic alternatives to growing poppies. The money is simply too attractive. Similarly, almost no other crop, including cereal crops or fruits or other cash crops, has an industry willing to front the capital necessary for large-scale cultivation—making poppy one of the only financial options for cash-strapped farmers.

There are some areas where this can be seen on an annual basis. Nangarhar province, in the east of the country, has an unpredictable and quite volatile cultivation pattern: According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, in 2006, it was virtually poppy-free, yet 2007 saw a 285 percent increase (pdf), making the region one of the country’s top poppy producers. Yet in 2008 it again was virtually poppy-free (pdf). This shift cannot be tied only to security, as Mr. Schweich would like to claim: Nangarhar is not noticeably safer than it was in 2007, yet poppy cultivation there dropped to virtually zero. Similarly, in Khost province, just south of Nangarhar, poppy cultivation has been practically disconnected from the region’s growing insurgency; Khost hasn’t been a significant source of the crop for years. Indeed, it is remarkable to see the entirety of Eastern Afghanistan almost empty itself of opium even as violence rose 40 percent amid major coordinated militant attacks; the South, meanwhile, saw violence levels rise to relative highs—nearly even with violence in the East. Yet today, the South is the epicenter of opium cultivation, and not the East.

The connection is almost certainly economic. During the Taliban years, the northern provinces of the country—those under the control of what the West called the Northern Alliance, which the U.S. supported to defeat the first Taliban movement in 2001—had the highest levels of opium production. Yet as that area has developed into relative stability and economic growth thanks to its eased connections to the rest of Central Asia, opium cultivation there has virtually disappeared, even though it remains a viable smuggling route. Similarly, the fate of Nangarhar’s poppies follows closely the fate of its rural economy, which nearly crashed in 2006 after the initial eradication effort saw almost no support from the West’s Alternative Livelihood program (which remains almost entirely unfunded). Similarly, an especially brutal winter destroyed an enormous number of crops in the country—including poppy but also wheat and other food crops.

Even this brief sketch of some of the fundamental drivers of opium eradication misses other factors that influence decisions to cultivate. But the point should be clear: there is a lot more to the story of opium in Afghanistan than rumors of corrupt presidential siblings, and there is little real reason to suspect that opium’s cultivation in any direct way ”drives” the insurgency—even if a portion of its profits go to fund it. Yet the story being uncritically relayed from American officials through American media outlets is a far simpler—and much less accurate—spin on what is going on. Unfortunately, in the war on drugs, it seems, politics takes precedence over pragmatism.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at Registan.net.