Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, the war on narcotics has become a central policy issue for NATO. The British government has made it one of its priorities and so far spent more than $100 million to eradicate poppy fields in Afghanistan. Alas, all combined efforts from NATO countries, Afghan government, and the United Nations have failed to produce results. The new US counter-narcotics strategy is not likely to change this, since it does not appear to handle the narcotics issue in the framework of a long-term development strategy.
Narcotics trafficking has always been an issue in Afghanistan; it thrived not the least because of three decades of military conflict and absence of law enforcement. But the opium trade is more than a law enforcement issue, it has become a thriving economy for poor Afghans. So far, the Afghan government and its NATO allies are treating the problem as one of law enforcement alone. However, fighting a US$ three billion industry with a budget of a few hundred million at most is somewhat unreasonable.
Since the Soviet invasion of the country in 1979, the Afghan people's main ambition has been survival. Consecutive years of severe droughts, which eliminated much of their livestock, a non-existent infrastructure, and permanent violence have left the country with little from which to build a working and resilient economy. Now, the Afghan central Government and its NATO allies find it difficult to eradicate opium poppy in the country, which is only natural since millions of people depend on it for their livelihood.
The new counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan, formulated by the U.S. authorities, is not much different from the previous British policy. The U.S.’ new “Five Pillar Plan” is based on improving public information, alternative development, eradication, law enforcement, and justice reform, which seems to be an approach mainly based on the Colombian model. It doesn’t take into consideration Afghanistan’s deteriorating security and volatile political situation. The U.S. plan focuses on increasing development assistance, coordinating counternarcotics and counterinsurgency planning and operations, and enhancing political will in the counternarcotics effort both within the Afghan government and its NATO allies.
While the new US plan seems plausible on the paper, it faces harsh realities on the ground. This new plan relies on the capacities of the Afghan government, international aid agencies, and NATO forces, which have faced growing new challenges in the southern and southwestern parts of the country. In addition, since the last two years, the security and political situations have been deteriorating and the insurgents have moved their operations closer to Kabul to border provinces such as Logar and Wardak.
The Afghan government is mired with serious problems. In the whole of southern Afghanistan, government institutions are virtually non-existent a few kilometers away from the center of provinces and districts. Provincial governors rely on powerful warlords and drug lords for their own protection, and in exchange close their eyes on their illicit activities. At highway checkpoints, the police do not stop luxury SUVs belonging to powerful lords, and courts of law most of the time rule in favor of wealthy defendants. Corruption has become an accepted norm and seeking personal wealth the ultimate goal for elite politicians.
The pace of reconstruction and development projects is not as slow as it is because of lack of funding. Rather, it is the lack of capacity and skilled workers that keeps the majority of Afghan ministries from utilizing all of their development budgets for 2007. Similarly, international aid agencies are unable to implement their well-funded projects for a lack of security, and the ever growing threats of kidnappings of foreign technicians and aid workers. Increasing development assistance without a better development strategy will only fatten the bank accounts of a few corrupt Afghan officials and private companies involved in reconstruction and development. But it is unlikely to provide substantial changes in the lives of ordinary farmers, which would be necessary to incite them to abandon the cultivation of opium poppy in favor of alternative crops.
The goal of Washington’s new counternarcotics strategy, which is to fight the insurgents and the narcotics trade simultaneously, is overly ambitious. NATO is short of soldiers to fight the Taliban. All recent appeals by Jaap de Hoop Sheffer, NATO’s Secretary General, to increase NATO’s participation in Afghanistan have not been met by the member countries. Were German troops to participate in opium poppy eradication in the northeastern provinces, for example, their numbers would have to be increased by additional thousands. And while German helicopters regularly fly over large opium poppy fields in the northeast, they are powerless and too short of resources in the rugged and difficult Afghan terrain to do anything about it.
Law enforcement and justice reform will take numerous years to mature. Traditionally, the Afghan central authorities has been only minimally felt outside Kabul. Even today, in rural parts of Kabul province, people rely more on traditional institutions and the verdicts of elders and tribal chieftains to resolve their issues than on government institutions. On rare occasions, they take their cases to government courts. Indeed, there are two justice systems and laws in the country. One originates from the central government institutions, and the other from traditions and tribal institutions. Most of the time, people prefer and trust their traditional justice system over the central government’s system – not least because it is more cost-efficient. Even government officials often promote the traditional justice system because it helps reduce their workload. Before a modern judiciary system becomes effective in Afghanistan, the government will be faced with two options: either to create special courts to indict powerful drug-lords or extradite them to international courts outside the country.
Eliminating, eradicating, and interdicting drug trafficking and processing centers in Afghanistan is a challenging task that requires at least tripling the military and police resources in the country. The private militia belonging to narcotraffickers are better paid and equipped than the Afghan National Police. Narco-traffickers can easily bribe senior Afghan officials and buy their loyalty as they have done over the years.
Alternative development has become the most common expression in Afghanistan. Huge amounts of money has been spent on "alternative livelihood" by international development agencies and Non-Governmental Organizations. Yet the majority of farmers are as poor as they were five years ago. An Afghan farmer with an average of 7 to 10 family members seeks to survive on less than $1,000 a year. They have a variable income based on the harvest of their crops, which could be affected by the caprices of nature. Sickness or death in the family can deplete a family’s annual budget. They have to struggle with all their financial shortages without government assistance or any private lending institutions. They have heard about, but never seen, the much-talked about alternative development policies.
Instead of linking counternarcotics to counterinsurgency strategy, U.S. policy would be well-advised to link it to a comprehensive long-term development strategy. Narcotics in Afghanistan are not uniquely a law enforcement issue. It is a well established economy that feeds and sustains millions of poor Afghan households. Afghanistan’s centralized administration is years away from establishing its authority in far and remote districts. It remains a traditional country, where traditional institutions could be used as tools in counternarcotics policy.
Islam and tribal values are of unique importance in all of Afghanistan, but particularly in the Pashtun tribes of the southwestern provinces. These two elements can be exploited for counternarcotics purposes. The Afghan government is making use of traditional jirga (council) system, such as the Joint Peace Jirga, to resolve problems with neighboring Pakistan, but it does not make efficient use of it to empower local tribal chieftains and spiritual leaders in the struggle against drugs.
The issue of narcotics in Afghanistan should be dealt locally rather than nationally. If a fraction of available financial resources were dedicated to empower traditional councils in villages and district levels, there would be greater opportunities to communicate with villagers and enhance public information. These institutions could become good interlocutors between the government and local farmers in the context of an efficient and effective counternarcotics policy.
Haroun Mir served for over five years as an aide to the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, Afghanistan’s former defense minister. He works as a consultant and policy analyst in Kabul.
Jens F. Laurson is Editor-in-Chief of the International Affairs Forum.
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