Rethinking the drugs war in Afghanistan

Operation Enduring Freedom: Marines operate near Combat Outpost Ouellette. Photo By United States Marine Corps Official Page

By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate

For those studying Afghanistan, the drugs trade is such a pervasive feature of the nation’s economy, politics, security and society that separating it from counter-insurgency (COIN) and diplomatic efforts is simply unthinkable. Yet the subject of counter-narcotics (CN) was notably absent from the agenda of last month’s NATO Summit in Chicago.

The IISS has acknowledged the difficulties of conducting counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics operations simultaneously; in most situations, the latter usually take a back seat. Nonetheless, the security implications of the illicit market make it a good time to assess current strategies and the ‘Afghanisation’ of policy, as well as to discuss ongoing international cooperation and the future prospects for Afghan counter-narcotics policy. And these were exactly the sort of discussions that the IISS Transnational Threats and Political Risk research programme and Dr David Bewley-Taylor of Swansea University facilitated when they recently hosted an off-the-record ‘Colloquium on counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan: transition and beyond’.  (Dr Bewley-Taylor’s involvement was part of a project funded by the Open Society Foundations’  Global Drug Policy Program and the colloquium was supported by the International Drug Policy Consortium.)

Eradication has been one of the methods used in Afghanistan to eliminate opium poppy production, the proceeds of which help support the insurgency. Indeed, in 2006 eradication became the key pillar of international counter-narcotics efforts in the country. Yet it is small landowners and sharecroppers who are the most affected by this practice. Even though local, national and international traffickers cream off around 80% of poppy revenues, small farmers still find themselves with no feasible alternative to cultivating poppies, by far the most lucrative crop that can currently be grown in Afghanistan.

The civil servants, diplomats, researchers and civil-society activists who attended the IISS meeting, including some from Afghanistan, concluded that the strategy adopted in Afghanistan had been budget-led and driven by donors’ priorities. Among its shortcomings, it failed to support harm reduction and the establishment of treatment centres for the increasing number of Afghan addicts. It also reflected how little international interest there was in local capacity building and increasing engagement with Afghan civil-society groups, NGOs and academics.

Instead the strategy had, from the very beginning, been dominated by international advisers who had, at times, little understanding of Afghan dynamics or indeed even of counter-narcotics, and had set unrealistic goals. When the United Kingdom took the CN lead in 2002, for example, it had envisaged a 70% reduction in poppy production within five years.

In addition, as international patronage disappeared, poppy revenues were becoming more important for the future of the economy and politics, colloquium delegates agreed. After the NATO withdrawal there will be greater uncertainty and possibly increased violence. Poppy cultivation is likely to increase as parties to any possible future conflict feel the need to stockpile resources, including poppy. Moreover, former warlords-turned-politicians have vested interests in continuing poppy production.

So, delegates were asked, if what has been done so far has not worked as hoped, what recommendations for future CN policy can be offered? Some of the suggestions to emerge from the colloquium included:

  • Afghanistan needs a post-2014 strategy that mitigates collateral damage for the most vulnerable Afghans, that has at its core the interests of the Afghan population, and that is drafted by Afghans.
  • Amid talk about alternative crops, many Afghans feel that they instead need alternative jobs, because neither wheat nor saffron nor pomegranates currently stand a chance to compete with poppies in terms of revenues.
  • The counter-narcotics approach should be part of a broader development strategy bearing in mind the socio-economic factors behind narcotics production.
  • The concept of shared responsibility should be central to any serious attempt to stem drug trafficking. Demand and supply are two sides of the same coin and international partners should take greater responsibility for demand reduction in the West, as well as for smuggling and corruption.

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