Fighting Words

How To Win Afghanistan’s Opium War

The best way to deprive the Taliban of drug profits? The United States should buy Afghanistan’s poppy crop instead of trying to eradicate it.

I used to know Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, Her Majesty’s ambassador in Kabul, and I have no reason to doubt that he was quoted correctly in the leaked cable from the deputy French ambassador to Afghanistan that has since appeared in the Parisian press. I think that he is right in saying that while there cannot be a straightforward “military victory” for the Taliban and other fundamentalist and criminal forces, nonetheless there is a chance that a combination of these forces can make the country ungovernable by the NATO alliance. He may also be correct in his assertion that an increase of troops in the country might have unwelcome and unintended consequences, in that “it would identify us even more strongly as an occupation force and would multiply the targets” for the enemy.

If Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated one point over another, it is that the quantity theory of counterinsurgency is very unsoundly based. If a vast number of extra soldiers had been sent to Baghdad before the disastrously conducted war had been given a new strategy and a new command, then it would have been a case of staying in the same hole without ceasing to dig (and there would have been many more “body bags” as a consequence of the larger number of uniformed targets). As it is, we have learned so many lessons in Iraq about how to defeat al-Qaida that we have the chance to apply them in Afghanistan. This is exactly the reverse of the glib and facile argument that used to counterpose the “good” Afghan war to the evil quagmire in Mesopotamia.

Speaking of quagmires, here are a few admittedly quantitative figures (taken from the testimony before Congress of Mark Schneider of the well-respected International Crisis Group). He quoted Adm. Mike Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as saying that suicide bombings in Afghanistan were up 27 percent in 2007 over 2006, commenting that Mullen “should have added that they are up 600 percent over 2005, and that all insurgent attacks are up 400 percent over 2005.” To darken the statistical picture further—this testimony was given last spring—one must also count the number of attacks on World Food Program convoys, on relief workers, and on prominent Afghan women. All of these show a steady upward curve, as does the ability of the Taliban to operate across the Pakistani border and to strike in the middle of the capital city as well as other cities, most notably its old stronghold of Kandahar. The final depressing figure is the index of civilian casualties caused by aerial bombardment from NATO forces: This year will show a large increase in these, as well, and that is one of the chief concerns underlying Sir Sherard’s bleakly expressed view that the current U.S.-led strategy is “destined to fail.”

Innumerable factors combine to constitute this depressing assessment, and many of them have to do with the sheer fact that Afghanistan, already extremely poor, scorched its own earth further in a series of civil wars and ethnic rivalries. I remember flying from Herat to Kabul on a U.N. plane a few years ago and being depressed by the rarity of even a splash of greenery in the mud-colored landscape. Thirty years ago, what was Afghanistan’s most famous export? It was grapes, usually made into exceptionally fine raisins that were esteemed throughout the subcontinent. It was a country of vines and orchards. Now, even the vines and trees have mostly been cut down for firewood. Iraq could well be immensely rich in a decade or less: Afghanistan will be well-down even in “Third World” economic terms for a very long time to come.

This is why it is peculiar of us, if not bizarre and quasi-suicidal, to insist that its main economic lifeblood continues to be wholly controlled by our enemies. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime tells us that last year Afghanistan’s poppy fields, on 193,000 hectares of land, produced 93 percent of all the world’s opium. The potential production could be as high as 8,200 metric tons. And, unsurprisingly, UNODC also reports that the vast bulk of the revenue from this astonishing harvest goes directly to the Taliban or to local warlords and mullahs. Meanwhile, in the guise of liberators, NATO forces appear and tell the Afghan villagers that they intend to burn their only crop. And the American embassy is only restrained by the Afghan government from pursuing a policy of actually spraying this same crop from the air! In other words, the discredited fantasy of Richard Nixon’s so-called “War on Drugs” is the dogma on which we are prepared to gamble and lose the country that gave birth to the Taliban and hospitality to al-Qaida.

Surely a smarter strategy would be, in the long term, to invest a great deal in reforestation and especially in the replanting of vines. While in the short term, hard-pressed Afghan farmers should be allowed to sell their opium to the government rather than only to the many criminal elements that continue to infest it or to the Taliban. We don’t have to smoke the stuff once we have purchased it: It can be burned or thrown away or perhaps more profitably used to manufacture the painkillers of which the United States currently suffers a shortage. (As it is, we allow Turkey to cultivate opium poppy fields for precisely this purpose.) Why not give Afghanistan the contract instead? At one stroke, we help fill its coffers and empty the main war chest of our foes while altering the “hearts-and-minds” balance that has been tipping away from us. I happen to know that this option has been discussed at quite high levels in Afghanistan itself, and I leave you to guess at the sort of political constraints that prevent it from being discussed intelligently in public in the United States. But if we ever have to have the melancholy inquest on how we “lost” a country we had once liberated, this will be one of the places where the conversation will have to start.