Holbrooke: I’ve changed Bush’s failed Afghan drug policy

Holbrooke: I’ve changed Bush’s failed Afghan drug policy

In a press briefing yesterday, U.S. Af-Pak envoy Richard Holbrooke, back Tuesday from a trip to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Brussels, noted that he had torn up the Bush administration’s playbook on drug eradication in Afghanistan, tossing out previous efforts at eradication of opium poppy crops, in favor of focusing on interdiction at the production and market/distribution levels:

One of the most interesting things I saw on the trip down in Helmand and Kandahar was the first tangible evidence that one of the most important policy shifts of the United States since January 20th is beginning to show results. As you know because we’ve announced it several times, and it finally got picked up about the fourth or fifth time we said it, ironically, when I was in Trieste, not here in Washington, we have phased – we are phasing out crop eradication. The United States and the ISAF forces are not going to go around assisting or participating in the destruction of poppy fields anymore. The United States has wasted hundreds of millions of dollars doing this. A per-hectare cost has been estimated at $44,000 a hectare to destroy the poppy seeds. You can buy real estate for that in most of the – in many places. […]

All we did was alienate poppy farmers who were poor farmers, who were growing the best cash crop they could grow in a market where they couldn’t get other things to market, and we were driving people into the hands of the Taliban.

Now, this flies in the face of a lot of conventional drug enforcement doctrine. Why did – why was it wrong? Because in other countries – Mexico, Colombia, the Golden Triangle in Thailand – that was the purpose of our policy. Here, of course, our policy is to strengthen the government and help defeat the Taliban, and we were not doing it. And the amount of hectarage we were destroying was inconsequential and the amount of money we were denying the Taliban was zero. They got everything they needed anyway.

So after consulting a lot of experts, we – and having an internal debate in the U.S. Government, because a lot of people were doctrinally addicted, if you’ll pardon the pun, to that concept – we did this. And then we started out – and we said, okay, no more crop eradication, we’ll phase that out, we will increase our efforts in interdiction, and third, we’re going to increase agriculture.

On this trip, we saw the first indications that it might work. And those indications came from the British and American forces in Helmand, where they targeted interdiction and made interdiction their goal and they went after drug dealers. And using modern technologies, they located what they called drug bazaars, marketplaces which sold drug paraphernalia, precursor chemicals, laboratory equipment, poppy seeds and there were vast amounts of opium, nice fluffy poppy, to buy and sell, and they destroyed them.


Agriculture accounts for 80% of the economy of Afghanistan, Holbrooke said, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would be heading to Afghanistan in the fall. Holbrooke also said that recently confirmed State Department Legal Advisor Harold Koh had accompanied him to Afghanistan and stayed on to examine the situation at the Bagram detention facility.

U.S. policy is focused obviously in the near term on ensuring Afghanistan has a fair presidential elections next month, after which U.S. policy to Afghanistan is expected to again come under review. “It’s absolutely essential that over time Afghanistan assume responsibility for its own security and combat troops draw down,” Holbrooke said. “Of course, economic assistance, training, advisory work will continue for quite a while. The current force levels of police and army are clearly going to have to be increased.”

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met yesterday with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, where Afghanistan was a chief topic of the discussions, as British appetite for staying in Afghanistan dwindles.

Middle East Peace Update: There was “progress … but no breakthrough,” in U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell’s talks this week with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said in a Wednesday press briefing:

QUESTION: Mitchell – Mitchell – what kind of progress he has made? Do you have anything? […]

MR. KELLY: [Mitchell] met yesterday with Prime Minister Netanyahu. I understand that it was a positive and constructive – they had positive and constructive talks. The day before yesterday, Mitchell met with [Palestinian] Prime Minister Fayyad and with President Abbas, the Palestinian Authority officials.

QUESTION: Did the Israeli agree to stop the settlements or —

MR. KELLY: Well, I think – as I say, I think that both sides felt that there was progress made, but that – no breakthrough. But we look forward to continuing this process.

Mitchell was in Bahrain Wednesday.

Elsewhere: TNR‘s Michael Crowley looks at who’s making foreign policy in the Obama administration, and concludes it’s Obama.

On the Foreign Policy home page, Trita Parsi makes the case for a tactical pause with Iran.

Politico‘s Ben Smith investigates what’s up with Vice President Joseph Biden‘s official photograph.