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Paul Fishstein

Poppy paradox in Afghanistan

An Afghan farmer collected resin from poppies on an opium poppy field in Bati Kot district of Nangarhar province, east of Kabul. Afghanistan's opium production is rising. An Afghan farmer collected resin from poppies on an opium poppy field in Bati Kot district of Nangarhar province, east of Kabul. Afghanistan's opium production is rising. (Rahmat Gul/ASSOCIATED PRESS-file 2007)

AFGHANISTAN'S opium output has risen for another year, and with it the volume of the debate over solutions. On opposite extremes are the US government, which advocates a more aggressive, eradication-led approach, including chemical spraying, and the Senlis Council, which advocates the legalization of opium poppy cultivation to meet a claimed worldwide shortage of painkillers.

While these proposals may satisfy a hunger to hear simple solutions, both would exacerbate the problem.

Those advocating spraying claim that, largely due to corruption among government officials, all else has failed, and that a strong message must be sent to farmers. Yet, in an economy with an estimated 40 percent unemployment, it is not clear what would replace the one-third of Afghanistan's economy which would be destroyed.

Those advocating legalization claim that Afghanistan's problems with opium arise from its illegality and that legalization of production would reduce corruption, crime, and violence. Yet, in attributing much if not all of the unrest in southern Afghanistan to western drug policies, the legalizers ignore the other major causes of unrest, including criminality, corruption (much of it nondrug-related), resistance to foreign forces, and the support of groups across the border in Pakistan.

The legalizers are correct: An aggressive eradication-led approach, especially one involving chemical spraying, will exacerbate insecurity, hand the Taliban a golden propaganda opportunity, undermine both the Kabul government and its international supporters, and hurt most badly the poorest farmers and laborers. In months past, a number of security incidents in the eastern province of Nangarhar were not caused by Taliban but farmers resisting eradication.

Research has continually reaffirmed that most Afghan farmers, especially poorer ones, are constrained by a variety of factors (i.e., credit, water, roads, corruption) and cannot simply shift to alternative crops in response to eradication. A "tough love" approach is therefore not likely to produce anything but deep hate for the government and the international community. As one farmer in a poppy-growing area of Badakhshan put it, "the government hasn't provided jobs, services, or infrastructure, but now they want our crops."

Even more worrying, the US government's new counter-narcotics strategy uses still un-quantified links between opium and the Taliban to argue for merging counternarcotics with counterinsurgency. Explicitly equating growing poppies with insurgent activity may play well with the public at home, but merging the war on drugs with the global war on terror will be read in Afghanistan's unstable areas as a war on farmers - hardly consistent with the professed goal of winning hearts and minds. And an aggressive campaign that achieved the national target of 25 percent eradication in Helmand Province (the area which most hangs in the political balance) would likely reflect the old adage that the operation was a success, but the patient died.

Yet, the sprayers are also correct: In a country where legal institutions are often incapable even of keeping accused drug suspects in jail and where drugs are said to travel in the convoys of high officials, legalization will blur the lines between legal and illegal opium, provide new opportunities for corruption, and bid up the price of illicit opium - providing even stronger incentives for production. The legalizers have still not been able to answer the most basic question: If the opium poppy that is currently grown on 3 percent of Afghanistan's agricultural land is made legal, why wouldn't farmers expand production onto other areas?

The Afghan government has made clear its objections to both legalization and chemical spraying. Still, spraying has powerful advocates, and the new US strategy can easily be read as laying the groundwork for spraying, if not this year, then next. Certainly the new US ambassador, who oversaw "Plan Colombia" and its key component of aerial spraying, has reinforced the belief that spraying is coming. Such talk may well drive farmers to look for "protection" from antigovernment elements. On the other hand, the legalizers seem to have gained traction in some western capitals for what sounds at a distance like a simple solution to a complex problem.

Afghanistan needs a greater active commitment to all of the elements of its National Drug Control Strategy, which is a combination of interdiction, public information, prosecution of known drug dealers, and development of the legal economy. There is evidence that, with the right transport infrastructure, access to markets, and economic incentives, a combination of legal crops and off-farm employment opportunities can sustainably draw farmers away from the illicit economy.

In parts of Nangarhar, for example, the combination of high value vegetable crops and job opportunities has competed with opium poppy. Likewise, in Badakhshan and other areas of the north, the recovery of animal herds decimated by years of drought has shifted the economics of production toward wheat and other fodder-producing crops. In such areas, where farmers have choices, targeted eradication would make sense.

The more politically challenging aspects of the strategy, such as apprehending the "big fish" rather than petty traders and the politically unconnected, are also critical, in part to help improve the government's suspect credibility. Eradicating the crops of poor farmers while allowing the big fish to swim freely is not politically tenable, nor does it seem equitable, particularly to a rural population that feels that it bears the brunt of western governments' counternarcotics policies.

Relatedly, support for overall good governance - especially replacement of known corrupt officials with clean ones - is likewise critical. In some areas, "taxes" charged to farmers along the road are seen as obstacles to cultivation of legal crops. There is a huge appetite among Afghans for serious steps to stem this sort of corruption.

There are no simple solutions to Afghanistan's narcotics problem. Spraying may serve the Taliban by draining support from the government and its international supporters, while legalized cultivation may please drug traffickers and corrupt officials by muddying the distinction between legal and illegal, but both are likely to deepen Afghanistan's opium problem. There is room for hope, but not with these types of "solutions."

Paul Fishstein is director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a policy research institute based in Kabul.

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