Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan (First Installment): Defining the Problem
The U.S. Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement released a new “U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan” this month. The strategy calls for added efforts in all pillars of the Counter-Narcotics effort in Afghanistan, but its most salient change from the past is its proposal for more forceful and extensive eradication of opium poppy crops. The Strategy calls for “non-negotiated” eradication, ostensibly in order to avoid the manipulation of eradication by local elites to exempt their own crops and focus eradication on their rivals or the powerless. While the Strategy states that no means of eradication will be used without the approval of the Government of Afghanistan, it contains many examples of thinly veiled pressure on the Government of Afghanistan to authorize the spraying of herbicides both from the ground and from the air.
Implementation of this strategy will lead to a rapid deterioration of security at least in the south of the country and the further weakening of the Afghan government. Afghans will conclude (if they have not so concluded already) that the U.S. does not consider Afghanistan to be sovereign and that the foreigners are in Afghanistan to pursue their own agenda, not to help Afghanistan. Significant portions of the countryside that have been neutral or pro-government will move toward the Taliban. The farmers will respond to the greater risk imposed by eradication not by stopping poppy cultivation but by preventing the government and international community from entering their areas. By and large, they will succeed, especially as US resources, credibility, and alliances continue to be drained by the disastrous war in Iraq.
Currently, the Taliban-led insurgency does not have stable and exclusive control of any significant territory and population in Afghanistan, as does the FARC in Colombia. Areas subject to aerial spraying for crop eradication, however, are likely to come under much more stable Taliban control. The government and its international supporters will be unable to enter such areas to provide development assistance or to engage in interdiction. Hence the more that aggressive eradication and aerial spraying are introduced before Afghans believe they have secure alternative livelihoods, the more the counter-narcotics policy will be reduced to eradication by military means, amounting to a war on the livelihood of the part of the Afghan rural population most vulnerable to Taliban influence.
Implementation of this strategy will also undermine attempts to stabilize the tribal areas of Pakistan and Baluchistan, by providing incentives for drug traffickers to move their operations into those areas just as Pakistan is undergoing a political crisis with unpredictable results.
The continuing escalation of tension between the U.S. and Iran will also promote the success of drug trafficking, as does the lack of U.S.-Iranian cooperation on counter-narcotics, the policy area where they have the clearest common interest. If the administration attacks Iran, as many observers are predicting, Iran will respond in such a way as to make much of Afghanistan ungovernable, including regions that the US government seems to think are under the stable control of the government. Counter-narcotics and many other policies will become impossible to implement. Iran's current activities in Afghanistan are both preparing for such an eventuality and signaling what it can do. As I will discuss in subsequent posts, the administration can have a confrontation with Iran or some success in Afghanistan, but not both.
I have read only the unclassified version of the Strategy. I am told that the classified version includes some of the elements that are missing in the open version, in particular on money laundering and high-level corruption. Those with the needed access can decide whether those sections meet some of the objections in my critique.
In a short series of posts, I will suggest why I find the proposed strategy so dangerous to international strategic goals in Afghanistan. In these posts I will confine myself to considering strategies within the framework of the current prohibitionist international regime for narcotics, including opium and its derivatives. I have argued elsewhere (including in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), that
The international drug control regime, which criminalizes narcotics, does not reduce drug use, but it does produce huge profits for criminals and the armed groups and corrupt officials who protect them. Our drug policy grants huge subsidies to our enemies.
Over the next few years, at least, we will be working within that regime, which I take as a given here.
This first post deals with defining the problem and understanding the situation.
The overriding goal of the U.S. and allies in Afghanistan is stabilizing the government and the region to (1) assure that al-Qaida cannot re-establish its bases in Afghanistan and (2) destroy al-Qaida’s current sanctuary in some of Pakistan’s tribal agencies. There are (and were long before 9/11) moral, humanitarian, and altruistic reasons to try to heal the wounds of Afghanistan and provide its people with a better life, but those reasons did not inspire the intervention that has been taking place since October 2001. The strategic goal is related to the ethical ones, however: the only long-term way to secure the region is to strengthen the state institutions and economies of both Afghanistan and Pakistan to the point that they can enforce norms of the international system with the consent of the people throughout their territories.
Among the many reasons that the US, UN, NATO, and dozens of donors and troop contributors are NOT in Afghanistan is to stop drug addiction in Europe or the U.S. Mounting a major state building effort in Afghanistan would hardly be the appropriate means to attain that goal. This does not mean that Donald Rumsfeld’s original policy of turning a blind eye to drug trafficking by counter-terrorism allies was right. That view of counter-narcotics was based on the same myopic vision that saw counter-terrorism solely as a "kill and capture" mission, whereas it can succeed only if it establishes the basis for effective security and policing. Policing and law enforcement, unlike military action, require the consent of the bulk of the population. That is why efforts to eliminate narcotics in a badly governed or ungoverned state tend to drift into a military mode (war on drugs. I will explain that when I discuss interdiction.
So what is the problem posed by the narcotics economy? The narcotics sector consists of economic activities whose profit (or rent) derives from illegality. The final price of narcotics is determined mainly by the cost of smuggling and distributing an illegal product rather than by conventional costs of production. Afghanistan’s principal comparative advantage is not in poppy cultivation but in the production of illegality. It is cheaper to engage in illegal activity in Afghanistan than almost anywhere else in the world. Iraq is catching up, however. Having first followed Afghanistan's lead in becoming a major haven for transnational terrorism, Iraq is now starting to produce opium poppies.
Thus Afghanistan's drug economy expanded when the state broke down after 1992. It consolidated itself and expanded further under the Taliban, because the Islamic Emirate was a peculiar type of state: internally it strictly enforced its own laws and brought security to trade routes and rural areas, at least in the Pashtun zones. But the government was not recognized internationally and did not recognize international law. Narcotics was profitable because it was illegal beyond the borders of Afghanistan, but it could expand securely within Afghanistan because of the security and administrative control of their regime. It consequently produced only modest revenues inside Afghanistan, compared to today.
Since the Taliban never treated drug trafficking as a crime, and forbade poppy cultivation for only one year, the drug trade provided little or no opportunities for corruption within Afghanistan. This changed only during the year that the Taliban banned poppy cultivation (2000-2001), though they never banned trafficking. The Taliban ban, by criminalizing part of the opium economy, made the narcotics economy far more profitable –prices rose ten-fold. Though prices have declined since then, they have never returned to the competitive levels of the period when the entire drug economy was de facto legal inside Afghanistan.
The current government, however, is committed to (in the words of the preamble to the Constitution of 2004/1382) “restoring Afghanistan to its rightful place in the international community.” Hence, unlike the Taliban Emirate, the government cannot tax, regulate, or settle disputes arising from the main economic activity in the country. Instead the constitution provides:
The state shall prevent all types of terrorist activities, the production and consumption of intoxicants (musakkirat), and the production and smuggling of narcotics.
While I cannot prove it with survey data, my informal observations lead me to conclude that the social consensus in Afghanistan is that poppy cultivation and drug trafficking are wrong, but that they are inevitable and excusable (at least cultivation and small trading are) until economic alternatives develop. (I will discuss the view of the ulama in a subsequent post on interdiction and law enforcement.)
Narco-economy: the tax base for insecurity
The participants in the narcotics economy must govern this economic sector (about a third of the economy, at least half of the cash economy) through activities that are “illegal,” but that are hidden mainly from foreigners rather than other Afghans. The Afghan police and administration, political leaders, and the anti-government insurgents all offer protection services to poppy growers and drug traffickers. Competition for this lucrative role motivates much of the violence in the country. The U.S. Strategy probably overstates the relative importance of the Taliban and al-Qaida in protecting the trade and understates the degree to which the narco-economy is controlled by officials and political leaders in the Afghan government. Portraying the drug economy as primarily supporting terrorism, however, does make militaristic approaches to it seem more acceptable.
Hence the narcotics economy corrupts and weakens the government, undermines stable economic development, and funds terrorism and insurgency. It also promotes dishonesty between Afghans and foreign officials, since the former cannot tell the latter what they really think. Political insurgents, whether national or transnational, predatory officials, and illegal businessmen have a common interest in preventing consolidation of the government or rule of law. The rents from illegality provide them with the resources to undermine security, though, like the Taliban, they also use these resources to provide the local security that the drug economy needs. From the point of view of Afghan poppy cultivators, eradicators provide insecurity, and leaders (whether in the government or Taliban) who can keep eradicators out provide security. Hence poorly designed and implemented counter-narcotics policies drive many disparate forces together, though most are not ideologically committed to transnational terrorism.
On pages 13-14, the US Strategy (“Defining the Problem”) correctly diagnoses the problem as “drug money,” which “weakens key institutions and strengthens the Taliban.” But this diagnosis has consequences that the Strategy does not draw. A strategy to lessen the flow of drug money into corruption and insurgency is not identical to a strategy to reduce the quantity of addictive substances produced and exported. Once the US Strategy accurately diagnoses the problem as “drug money,” it then reverts to a nearly exclusive focus on drugs themselves, and not even on heroin, which produces much more drug money, but on poppy cultivation, which accounts for at most 20 percent of the drug economy in Afghanistan but has become the photogenic Paris Hilton of Afghan narcotics policy. This analytical flaw is the root cause of most of what I believe is wrong with this strategy.
The focus on flowers rather than drug money has led to a false comparison between northern and southern Afghanistan. U.S. officials now imply that political elites in northern Afghanistan are engaging in successful counter-narcotics, while the southern drug economy expands. This depiction has obvious ethnic implications, to the point that one government (not the U.S.) asked me to comment on whether different ethnic groups have different cultural attitudes toward opium.
The basis for these generalizations is that poppy cultivation spread into Afghanistan mainly through the Pashtun areas and that in the last year poppy cultivation has decreased in the mainly northern provinces (see the UNODC Rapid Assessment Survey map). The main reason that the drug economy expanded the most in the Pashtun areas is that traffickers shifted the cultivation to Afghanistan from Pakistan when Islamabad started to suppress it in the 1980s, and the government collapsed in Afghanistan. As a trans-border people, Pashtuns are well-organized for smuggling, whether of opium, weapons, or spare parts for trucks.
But most importantly, the map shows only the flowers. The U.S. Strategy nowhere claims, discusses, or even mentions whether “drug money” has decreased in northern Afghanistan. It has not. Balkh may be poppy-free, but its center, Mazar-i Sharif, is awash in drug money. The commanders who control Northern Afghanistan today are playing the same shell game that the Taliban did in 2000-2001. Some have suppressed cultivation (in Ghor and Bamiyan cultivation is hardly worthwhile anyway, the yields are so poor) but none have moved against trafficking. Most of them continue to profit from it, if only through what in the U.S. we would call "campaign contributions."
Some of the same officials who today get credit for counter-narcotics efforts are generally believed to have become millionaires directly or indirectly from drug trafficking. Recently the deputy chief of the border police in a northern province was caught driving a car full of heroin north through Kabul. Why? Because there is still plenty of trafficking going through the North, and trafficking, not cultivation, is where the money is. An Afghan friend (and official of the Afghan government) told me that when he was in Bamyan recently, the north-south road by the lake at Band-i Amir was crowded like a highway with trucks taking the opium and heroin of Helmand northwards. (This is the same road that the mujahidin used to transport arms from Pakistan to northern Afghanistan in the 1980s.) The same traffic goes through Ghor, to the west. The arms traffic goes in the other direction, as northern commanders sell their Iranian weapons to dealers who re-sell them to the Taliban.
The commanders have learned that we pay no attention to the money but only to bright colored flowers. And what both government officials and politically connected people tell me is, the pressure for photogenic progress comes from Congress. Every year it wants easily depicted metrics, and flowers provide it. Perhaps someone from the legislative branch would like to comment on this.
In the next installment, we will look beyond the flowers to analyze the implications of the neglected opiate value chain for counter-narcotics policy.
Posted by Barnett R. Rubin