Saving Afghanistan from the killing fieldsA major lesson from the Iraqi debacle for the United States is to focus on nation-building, an issue for which President George W Bush has never found much enthusiasm. However, considering the deteriorating security environment in Afghanistan, with presidential elections only two months away, the US administration has shifted its attention to nation-building. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited Kabul last week and spent some time with counter-drug forces, especially at a time when increased poppy cultivation in the killing fields of that country is reported to be helping the insurgency forces finance their operations. America's heightened focus on attempting to salvage Afghanistan by escalating counter-drug operations might turn out to be a necessary, but not a sufficient, approach.
After the Taliban regime came to power in 1996, it knew how to achieve one goal: put an end to poppy cultivation. Most observers knew how much that problem contributed to making Afghanistan a tinderbox. The opium trade was the major source of income; it was exported via Pakistan to the south, Iran to the west, and Tajikistan to the east of Afghanistan to European and Russian markets. Money thus earned bankrolled the warlords and their chauvinistic aspirations to sustain their fiefdoms. That reality also made a mockery of any attempt to establish a national authority.
Since the Taliban were seeking some approval in the international community, they concluded that one way to do that was through demonstration of their resolve to eradicate the opium trade. They issued a ban on poppy cultivation in July 2000. Their endeavor worked so well that in May 2001, US narcotics experts, returning from a fact-finding trip, concluded that "the movement's ban on opium-poppy cultivation appears to have wiped out the world's largest crop in less than a year".
It is not possible to get a complete understanding of the Taliban strategy to eradicate the opium trade; however, US narcotics experts did mention that the Taliban "used a system of consensus-building" by couching the issue in an Islamic framework. They asked religious scholars to emphasize Islamic prohibitions against drugs, and backed up religious edicts with the threat of imprisoning violators. Given the Taliban's low tolerance for any disregard to their decisions on all public issues, it is not an exaggeration to suggest that the chief reason for their success in at least temporarily eradicating the opium trade was their reputation for the use of violence.
Those cheering the success of the Taliban regime in banning the opium trade were mindful of the hardship that Afghan farmers encountered when they could not grow poppies. It was also known then that massive assistance to Afghanistan should not only come in the form of cash assistance to farmers, but, more important, to finance comprehensive programs for clearing minefields and creating a nationwide irrigation system and a massive education program. Otherwise, the opium trade would spring back into action at the first opportune moment.
The United States' dismantlement of the Taliban regime in November 2001 turned out to be just such a moment. Afghan farmers reportedly rushed to plant their poppy fields. Afghanistan had a new sheriff (the US), whose priority then was (as it is now) eradication of the remnants of Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, not ensuring the continuation of the ban on poppy cultivation. However, being fully cognizant of the linkage between the opium trade and the internal instability of Afghanistan, the Bush administration maintained the public posturing about its commitment to eradication of the drug trade.
Another US predilection that defeated the objective of extermination of the drug trade was its reliance on Afghan warlords to capture or kill the al-Qaeda-Taliban leadership. Washington continued that dependence, knowing that the very same warlords were also part of the opium-trade problem. However, the capture of the al-Qaeda-Taliban leadership was a goal of considerably higher political value than tackling the issue of the drug trade.
President Hamid Karzai himself was aware of how the growing number of poppy fields was contributing to his inability to expand the authority of the central government. Yet he also made his own contribution to the problem by continuing to deal with some warlords, while attempting to assert the authority of the central government vis-a-vis others.
Now, with presidential elections due in October, the Afghan government and its US masters are worried about the dangerous role of the growing poppy trade for the evolution of democracy in Afghanistan. According to a United Nations report, drug production generated US$2.3 billion in Afghanistan in 2003, and the 3,600 tonnes of heroin produced last year accounted for up to 95% of the heroin on Europe's streets. According to a UN estimate, Afghanistan accounted for three-quarters of the world's opium last year. About 1.7 million rural Afghans, 7% of the population, rely on poppy cultivation. The Karzai government is unable to entice poppy growers away from that crop by paying the measly amount of $350 per hectare for the destruction of their poppy fields, while those farmers can easily earn $3,000 per hectare for growing it.
"Out of this drug chest, some [Afghan] provincial administrators and military commanders take a considerable share," the UN report says. "The more they get used to this, the less likely it becomes that they will respect the law, be loyal to Kabul and support the legal economy."
Bush administration officials have said that the crop this year will produce 5,400-7,200 tonnes of opium gum, an increase of 50-100% compared with 2003.
What are the chances that Afghanistan may be saved from the killing fields of poppy? Examining just one set of statistics may provide a cursory answer. The world community of donor nations rallied more than three months ago in Berlin at an international conference on Afghanistan to pledge $11.5 billion for reconstruction over three years. However, Afghanistan - with a population of 25 million to 30 million - is estimated to be in need of at least $39 billion just for the end of this decade. What nation is willing to commit hard cash of that magnitude for the long haul? Certainly not the US, which is already dumping billions of dollars into the black hole of Iraq, where political stability appears nothing more than a mirage. Besides, after the presidential elections in the US, America's own commitment to staying put in Afghanistan - or Iraq - is likely to undergo a major overhaul. Presidential hopeful John Kerry is already using the euphemistic language of relying on the international community, which has shown limited interest in investing its own precious resources in Afghanistan, where the emergence of law and order in the near term appears minimal. If Bush is re-elected, then even he has to start thinking more and more about his legacy - as all presidents do during their second term. And getting out of Afghanistan is likely to become part of his thinking then.
In the interim, Afghanistan appears to be as ungovernable now as it was when the Soviet Union occupied it for a decade from 1979, with a grand dream of enslaving it. The United States did not enter with that kind of dream. However, by ousting the Taliban regime, it became obligated - indeed responsible - for the creation of a stable Afghanistan. As the troubled country gets closer to electing a president, its own destiny appears firmly entangled in the death grip of opium traders. Unfortunately, while the latter appear resolute about not letting go of the country, no one in the international community is likely to stay and fight with them over the long haul to salvage Afghanistan from the killing fields.
Ehsan Ahrari, PhD, is an Alexandria, Virginia, US-based independent strategic analyst.