- - Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Every time we Americans declare a war on an inanimate object, we lose. Cases in point: the War on Alcohol (Prohibition) 1920s and ’30s, the War on Poverty 1960s and the War on Drugs 1980-present. 

Consequently, we should not be surprised that declaring war on drugs in Afghanistan would be a debacle. The subject recently came up in the overhyped Washington Post series the “Afghan Papers,” which didn’t reveal anything that anyone who has closely followed the war hasn’t known for years. Nobody lied about this effort. For the most part, the soldiers and bureaucrats who were involved in it participated involuntarily.

By the later part of the first decade in Afghanistan, it was obvious that poppy products were a major source of income for the Taliban war effort and the collective wisdom of the senior leadership was that we must “do something.” The “how” was left to subordinates who had no more of an idea of how to solve the problem than their drug-fighting counterparts back home.

The general approach was two-fold. First, to encourage the farmers to plant alternate crops by providing free seed. Second — for those who did not comply — the Afghan government would send in law enforcement task forces to eradicate the crops by hand because the American and NATO military balked at using defoliants due to the post-Vietnam Agent Orange fall out.

I got to watch this flawed strategy firsthand from my perch as a civilian Department of State governance adviser in a remote — predominately Pashtun — district. The expected alternate seeds never appeared due to the impassible terrain. Almost all of our supplies came in by helicopter, and bringing the bulk seed in by air was not feasible. The locals provided their own food by subsistence farming, but the illogic of the program escaped the planners in Kabul. Even if the locals had wanted to produce cash crops, the seeds couldn’t get in and it would be impossible to get harvested product out.

When the farmers resorted to poppy growing using free drug lord-provided seeds, the second part of the government strategy kicked in. In late April 2012, an Afghan government law anti-drug team showed up armed with eradication authority. The district security team — consisting of the district sub-governor, Afghan security commanders, NATO commanders and our interagency district support team — wisely refused to participate. We had enough problems with the Taliban and didn’t need to make more insurgents by harassing the local farmers.

The result was predictable: The only crops eradicated were those of the farmers without enough money to bribe the task force which took plenty of pictures of the eradication efforts in the fields of the poor sods who couldn’t pay bribes. At the end of the day, the only effect of the campaign was to send the task force home with full purses.

As The Post points out, the irony of the situation is that the only time the drug trade has been eradicated in Afghanistan was when the Taliban ruled the country before 9/11. After an anti-drug decree by their leader — Mullah Omar —  the drug traffic stopped. The threat of losing your hands — or possibly your head — worked. However, after the American invasion, the Taliban were desperate for income, and their leaders rationalized drug money as an income source by pointing out that the prime market was decadent European and Russian infidels. The fact that many Afghans — including Taliban fighters — are now addicted is considered acceptable collateral damage.

If NATO and the Afghan government had truly wanted to eliminate drugs as an income source for the Taliban, they could have taken either the draconian Mullah Omar approach or covertly taken control of the trade and used American money to undersell the Taliban. Neither of these would be acceptable to public opinion and The Post would have a real story eventually. At the end of the day, the drug money has probably corrupted the Taliban as much as it has the Afghan government. Omar’s successors will have to wrestle with that.

One thing perplexes me. The United States is the world’s foremost capitalist country. But, for over a century, we have failed to realize that when you have a great demand for a product people will go to extraordinary lengths — legal or illegal — to make a profit off of it. Bureaucracies and the legal system always fail when they try to interfere. Today’s hottest markets are oil, coal and drugs. We appear to be slow learners.

• Gary Anderson lectures in Alternative Analysis at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

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