- The Washington Times - Friday, April 4, 2008


Afghanistan’s thriving heroin drug trade is a significant barrier to the country fully moving into modernity after centuries of chronic instability, poverty, and barbaric rule. The U.S.-led counter-narcotics program, which emphasizes poppy crop destruction, hasn’t been able to thwart it. Absent a suitable anti-drug alternative the nation risks becoming a failed state again, crippling the war against radical Islamic extremism.

According to the State Department’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report for 2007 Afghanistan leads the world in heroin production and trafficking, cultivating about 93 percent of the world’s opium poppy. The estimated export value of the harvest was $4 billion, representing more than one-third of all the nation’s goods and services produced.

Opium poppy is a highly profitable crop easily grown in Afghanistan’s rugged and drought-stricken agricultural environment. Byproducts include the medicinal painkiller morphine and its notorious derivative heroin.

About 4.5 million of 32 million Afghans are believed involved in opium poppy production. Many do this seeking relief from the most difficult circumstances imaginable. Astonishingly, residents have an illiteracy rate of 72 percent, a 40 percent unemployment rate, an average annual income of $300, and a life expectancy of only 44 years.

Poppy farmers, traffickers and the Taliban terror group form the main components of the drug trade. However, the revenue is apportioned unequally, with farmers receiving about three times less than drug traffickers. With their hefty revenues drug traffickers provide the Taliban with money and arms to protect their nefarious activities and interests. The protection money allows the Taliban to also finance operations against Afghanistan, U.S. and NATO security forces, attempting to regain control of the country it lost in 2001. It’s no coincidence that about 70 percent of the country’s poppy is produced in five unsecured southern provinces where the Taliban and its terror partner, al Qaeda, are most active and influential.

Despite investing an estimated $1 billion on the costly counternarcotics program in Afghanistan, the U.S. hasn’t been able to curb the drug trade. The program goal is to destroy poppy crops before they can be harvested, refined into heroin and shipped to lucrative European and Asian markets. Although eradicating large quantities of crops, five years into the program only 13 of 34 provinces are “poppy free” with overall opium production 34 percent above the previous-year total, a historic high.

The U.S.-led program has alienated a large segment of Afghanistan’s farming community who find themselves without a livelihood after their poppy crops are destroyed.And it runs counter to a prime pillar of the U.S. unconventional war strategy aimed at winning the “hearts and minds” of local populations. It’s from this dispossessed population where the Taliban and al Qaeda derive growing support and sympathy.

The challenge for the United States and allies in Afghanistan is to devise a counternarcotics program that will deprive traffickers and the Taliban their illicit revenue source while offering rural populations a chance at earning legal and just livelihood.

One intriguing possibility has been advanced by the Senlis Council, a security and development policy group with offices in several international cities including Kabul. The key feature of the group’s June 2007 “Poppy for Medicine” plan is to license Afghan villages to transform village-cultivated poppy into morphine (e.g., from seed to tablet) instead of heroin on a pilot-program basis with some government and international control. It envisions all medicine profits remaining in villages allowing for much-needed economic diversification.

The model mimics similar successful programs in India and Turkey. The World Health Organization highlights a strong global demand for medicinal morphine in a March 2007 report stating that “only a tiny percentage of patients in 150 countries, containing about 80 percent of the global population, receive adequate treatment for pain.”

Such a program would surely infuriate drug traffickers, terrorists, and government enablers who benefit greatly from the heroin drug trade and who would undoubtedly attempt to exact revenge on anyone threatening their business, including impoverished villagers and farmers. It would be up to in-country security forces to provide necessary protection.

However, under no circumstance should American taxpayers fully finance the project. European and Asian countries, where much of Afghanistan-produced heroin is shipped, should also contribute because they also have a substantial interest in harnessing this drug problem.

It’s clear the current U.S.-led counternarcotics program has not achieved desired results and a better approach needed. The Senlis Council model offers a creative and logical way for Afghans to escape their drug-economy dependency nightmare. If the “poppy for medicine” pilot program succeeds, the model could be expanded to other villages and go a long way toward pacifying the country and achieving U.S. national-security objectives. That is why American policy-makers should strongly consider supporting the idea.

Fred Gedrich is a foreign-policy and national-security analyst and served in the Departments of State and Defense.

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