The South Asia Channel

Holbrooke’s drug war

Holbrooke’s drug war

Gretchen Peters

In June, I met with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to discuss how the drug trade benefits the Afghan Taliban. I urged him to pay close attention to the two history chapters of my book, Seeds of Terror, warning that Washington has a habit of making the same mistakes over and over in Afghanistan.

He assured me the Obama team had consulted with a raft of experts and historians, adding with a laugh: “We plan to make new mistakes.”

I am not entirely sure, however.

Broadly speaking, the Obama administration’s counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan is a huge step in the right direction. Thousands more western troops have poured into the Taliban-dominated southern poppy belt to provide security, and to train local security forces or replace those who were themselves tied to the drug trade. Efforts have intensified to interdict drug traffickers, destroy opium stockpiles and confiscate precursor chemicals. The Good Performance Initiative, co-funded with the UK, provides development assistance to communities that eliminate or significantly reduce narcotics cultivation. And there is greater focus on helping farmers find viable alternative crops to poppy and cannabis.

There is no doubt the Bush administration’s proposal to launch a wide-scale aerial spraying campaign to wipe out Afghanistan’s poppy fields was wildly misguided. It would have not only created a humanitarian disaster, and sent tens of thousands of poor villagers running to the arms of the insurgents, it would have actually benefitted the Taliban, drug traffickers and corrupt officials by driving up the farm-gate price of opium poppy.

Recent ground eradication efforts also were a costly flop. As Ambassador Holbrooke himself explained, they were wildly expensive — estimated to cost as much as $44,000 a hectare — and dangerous for the local eradicators, who died by the dozens in attacks by the Taliban and traffickers. Meanwhile, wealthy landowners and the politically well connected were able to bribe eradication teams not to cut down their poppy fields, meaning poor farmers became the predominant targets.

Ambassador Holbrooke is wise to phase out the misguided Bush-era eradication policy, however stopping eradication entirely would also be a mistake.

Counternarcotics strategy is like a four-legged table, supported by interdiction, alternative livelihoods, public education and eradication. Just as a table will wobble if its legs are uneven, there must be balance between the four pillars for a counternarcotics strategy to succeed.

It’s the basic carrot and stick approach: Raise incentives for people to function within the law, while simultaneously raising the risks of operating outside of it.

If you remove the threat of the stick, the strategy fails. It’s not a matter of being tough, but persistent.

I don’t expect a need for wide-scale eradication in Afghanistan. According to my research and a separate survey by the Asia Foundation, more than 80 percent of Afghans oppose poppy cultivation, meaning that the majority of poppy farmers will switch to other crops without complaint once security, trade and market conditions allow it.

Ironically, it will probably be large landowners who will be most resistant to change. Those who earn hundreds of thousands of dollars each year off this lucrative cash crop will likely respond only when the level of risk for doing so is elevated.

The British funded a carrot-only approach in 2002, offering to pay farmers not to harvest opium. It was hastily cancelled a year later, after drug cultivation spread to new regions and thousands more Afghan farmers planted poppy just to get their hands on the easy cash. Now that failed policy is again being promoted in some Washington circles.

U.S. policy has typically swung like a pendulum with regards to the opium trade in Afghanistan, ranging from ignore it, to destroy it, to throw money at it.

But just as there are a variety of circumstances that induce Afghan farmers to plant opium poppy, it will take a blend of policies to get them to stop.

The Obama administration and Ambassador Holbrooke have taken important steps towards a coherent counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan. But if they want to avoid the mistakes of history, they should seek a balanced approach, and avoid the pitfalls of simply doing the opposite of those who came before them.

Gretchen Peters is the author of Seeds of Terror, How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda.