- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 25, 2004

As difficult as it may be to believe, the $780 million the United States will spend under its recently unveiled “Plan Afghanistan” could undermine the relative stability that U.S. and NATO forces have established thus far. The plan will target Afghanistan’s opium production and crop eradication and has both glaring and subtle problems.

The $780 million budgeted for 2005 will go toward countering Afghanistan’s $2.8-billion opium industry, which accounts for more than 60 percent of the country’s economy. Just how do policy-makers expect to counter an industry of that size and of that central importance to the economy with $780 million?

The central problem is that Afghanistan, which still is recovering from serial conflicts, does not yet have a national economy that can provide employment opportunities. The Bush administration has said that part of its budget for Plan Afghanistan will go toward aiding alternative livelihoods. That and any other aid is surely welcomed and needed. But the expectation that those funds could make a serious dent in the opium trade is not, at this point, realistic. The funds also will back an Afghan public-relations campaign aimed at discouraging participation in the illicit trade. That campaign is sure to fall on the deaf ears of poor Afghans who lack another way of eking out a livelihood.

Also, the plan will help fund Afghanistan’s counter-drug policing, eradication and interdiction efforts. This will put the Afghan government on a collision course with many factions that would otherwise be willing to cooperate with federal authority. Afghanistan could have considerable difficulty in weathering the conflict that may arise as a result of aggressive counter-drug efforts.

The United States does have a strong interest in seeing Afghanistan wean itself from its dependency on the opium trade. As John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, notes in a column opposite this page: “Progress toward a safe and democratic Afghanistan has been steady and significant. That progress, however, faces a threat that requires renewed attention by the Afghan government and a helping hand from the international community. The threat is illegal drugs and a booming drug trade that transforms innocent and otherwise honest farmers into laborers trapped in the service of a criminal enterprise.”

The international community doesn’t want to see Afghanistan descend further into narco-lawlessness. It should therefore continue to aid Afghanistan’s development and support incremental counter-drug efforts. For the time being, Afghan forces should step up policing of the country’s roads and borders in a bid to interdict opium.

An excessively heavy-handed eradication effort is highly questionable given the lack of employment opportunities, however. “Plan Afghanistan” risks undercutting the hard-won achievements in that long-suffering country.

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