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Commentary: Taliban wins in war on opium

By David Donadio

Chicago Tribune


It's often said that the best way to do nothing is to try doing everything at once. In Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies are fighting to separate the Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents from the ordinary population. But in undertaking a major new anti-drug initiative, we're undermining our support among the people whose support we need most. Worse, we may soon be burdening our troops with tasks that make it harder for them to achieve their primary mission and that risk their lives for nothing.

At a news conference last month, U.S. anti-drug officials announced a bold new plan under which American troops will be used in counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan, where an estimated 95 percent of the world's opium is grown.

As in the U.S., drug policy criminalizes a significant percentage of the Afghan population. But in Afghanistan, its consequences are far worse. In branding farmers criminals for growing opium, compelling them to seek protection from the state -- and now from U.S. forces -- we are unwittingly driving some them straight into the arms of the Taliban.

When a farmer subsisting on opium crops can't afford to pay off the authorities, "they clean out your fields and wipe out your source of income. You have to turn to another source of protection, and that's where the Taliban or fellow travelers come in handy," says Brian Glyn Williams, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth, who spends several weeks each year in Afghanistan. "These sort of people then become your protector, which means that you have to play ball with them," Williams continues. "Which means that when Taliban move through your village, you have to give them sanctuary, you have to support them. You have to keep an eye out on coalition troops and report them to the Taliban."

It's precisely this sort of intelligence -- advance warning of troop movements through a given area -- that gets U.S. soldiers killed.

The truth is that it's hard to fight an enterprise that people profit by, and even harder to fight one people rely on to live. An Afghan farmer can make, on average, $30 per acre of wheat, and more than $500 per acre of opium. For many farmers, including those in Helmand and Oruzgan provinces in the southern and central parts of the country, it's a subsistence crop.

According to the Congressional Research Service, this year the State Department and the Pentagon will spend almost $1 billion on various counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan. Though it's expanding the anti-drug effort, the Bush administration has asked for less -- about $630 million -- in its latest budget request.

By contrast, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that for $755 million, we could buy the entire Afghan opium crop.

Though the new plan is commendable for allocating money to be spent by regional governors who know the tribes and families involved -- and $30 million in aid for farmers who agree not to grow opium -- the likelihood is that American officials, acting on American public opinion and American political cycles, will continue to demand eradication efforts that prove counterproductive.

"Because the police are subject to corruption," says Ashraf Haidari, political counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, "it's the poorest of the poor farmers that get [their crops] eradicated, not the ones that have a lot of money to bribe the police."

These are the farmers, Haidari says, most vulnerable to the Taliban and the insurgency. So the net result of eradication is a small dent in production at the expense of a great deal of ill will. Not exactly how one wins a war of hearts and minds.

In the short term, the U.S. and Afghanistan can do much to worsen the situation and little to improve it.

Even if it were possible, a successful crackdown on opium production wouldn't help overnight. The UN Drug Control Program reports that in the past, producers have stored up to 60 percent of the opium stock for sale in future years. Most likely, U.S. efforts won't bear fruit for years, while the price will be paid right now.

The U.S. is right to look for ways to wean Afghan farmers away from their reliance on opium cultivation, but under the circumstances, it's unwise to punish people who are only acting in their own economic interests.

As Williams puts it, "The war on drugs and the war on terrorism don't necessarily march hand in hand in Afghanistan."

We can't fight everyone at once. So between the people trying to kill us and the ones who are only trying to make a buck, who will we go after?

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