Opium versus democracy

Posted in Asia | 05-Apr-05 | Source: International Herald Tribune

An Afghan policeman stands guard as a pile of opium, heroin and hashish is incinerated in Kabul.
With Afghanistan attempting to make the difficult passage from decades of warlord rule to something resembling democracy, one swiftly growing menace threatens to reverse all the encouraging progress of recent months. That danger comes, surprisingly, not from the partially revived Taliban, but from a huge boom in opium traffic. Last year, an estimated 87 percent of the world's illegal opium crop came from Afghanistan.

Quite apart from the damage that that opium, transformed into heroin, inflicts on users worldwide, the enormous revenues derived from its trafficking flow into the pockets of armed militia leaders and corrupt local officials, giving them the means to resist President Hamid Karzai's efforts to promote security, development and democracy.

Finally, Washington has begun to treat the drug trafficking issue with the seriousness it deserves. Finding effective answers will take time, money and local Afghan community involvement. Quick fixes, like aerial spraying, tend to move the problem around, rather than solve it, and undermine broader efforts to revive the rural economy.

Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries. Making its economy function again, and resettling its returning refugees, depends on providing poor farmers with less destructive ways to make a living than growing opium poppies. That requires, among other things, rebuilding local roads and irrigation works so that rural industries, and alternative crops like wheat, can become economically viable. For many small farmers today, the only available credit comes from drug traffickers willing to offer down payments against the next opium harvest.

For the first three years after the United States intervened in Afghanistan, combating the drug trade was shockingly low on Washington's list of priorities. The problem was largely delegated to British troops, who had neither the numbers or the financial backing to handle it successfully on their own. Finally they will be getting some help from the American military.

U.S. troops previously operated under orders to ignore the drug traffickers except for those accidentally encountered in the course of military operations against the Taliban. Even then, trafficking issues were often referred to Afghan police units who lacked the capacity to follow through effectively. Now, under new rules being finalized by the Pentagon, American soldiers will be permitted to provide direct support to antinarcotics operations. The Defense Department is asking for a more than four-fold increase in its funding for antinarcotics work in Afghanistan.

Just last month, Afghanistan's repeatedly delayed parliamentary elections were set for September. Unlike last year's presidential vote, these elections can only succeed if most of the country is secure and firmly under central authority. Curbing the drug traffickers' wealth and power is crucial to a successful vote.