Pubdate: Wed, 23 Jan 2008
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Page: A19
Copyright: 2008 The Washington Post Company
Author: Richard Holbrooke
Note: Richard Holbrooke, a former ambassador to the United Nations, 
writes a monthly column for The Post.
Bookmark: (Opinion)


"I'm a spray man myself," President Bush told government leaders and 
American counter-narcotics officials during his 2006 trip to 
Afghanistan. He said it again when President Hamid Karzai visited 
Camp David in August. Bush meant, of course, that he favors aerial 
eradication of poppy fields in Afghanistan, which supplies over 90 
percent of the world's heroin. His remarks -- which, despite their 
flippant nature, were definitely not meant as a joke -- are part of 
the story behind the spectacularly unsuccessful U.S. 
counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan. Karzai and much of the 
international community in Kabul have warned Bush that aerial 
spraying would create a backlash against the government and the 
Americans, and serve as a recruitment device for the Taliban while 
doing nothing to reduce the drug trade. This is no side issue: If the 
program continues to fail, success in Afghanistan will be impossible.

Fortunately, Bush has not been able to convince other nations or 
Karzai that aerial spraying should be conducted, although he is 
vigorously supported by the American ambassador, William Wood, who 
was an enthusiastic proponent of aerial spraying in his previous 
assignment, in Colombia. Wood, often called "Chemical Bill" in Kabul, 
has even threatened senior Afghan officials with cuts in 
reconstruction funds if his policies are not carried out, according 
to two sources.

But even without aerial eradication, the program, which costs around 
$1 billion a year, may be the single most ineffective program in the 
history of American foreign policy. It's not just a waste of money. 
It actually strengthens the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as well as criminal 
elements within Afghanistan.

According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the area under opium 
cultivation increased to 193,000 hectares in 2007 from 165,000 in 
2006. The harvest also grew, to 8,200 tons from 6,100. Could any 
program be more unsuccessful?

The program destroys crops in insecure areas, especially in the 
south, where the Taliban is strongest. This policy pushes farmers 
with no other source of livelihood into the arms of the Taliban 
without reducing the total amount of opium being produced. Meanwhile, 
there is far too little effort made against the drug lords and 
high-ranking government officials who are at the heart of the huge 
drug trade in Afghanistan -- probably the largest single-country drug 
production since 19th-century China -- whose dollar value equals 
about 50 percent of the country's official gross domestic product. 
There is a direct correlation between opium production and security. 
In relatively secure areas, production has dropped, but along the 
Pakistan border in the insecure south, production is increasing and 
amounts to about 80 percent of the overall crop.

Everyone talks about "alternative livelihoods" and alternative crops 
as the solution to the drug problem. This is true in theory -- but 
this theory has been tried elsewhere with almost no success. Poppies 
are an easy crop to grow and are far more valuable than any other 
product that can be grown in the rocky, remote soil of most of 
Afghanistan. Without roads, it is hard to get heavier (and less 
valuable) crops to market -- and what market is there, anyway? It 
will take years to create the networks of roads, markets and 
lucrative crops that would induce farmers to switch, especially when 
government officials, including some with close ties to the 
presidency, are protecting the drug trade and profiting from it. (Any 
Kabul resident can point out where drug lords live -- they have the 
largest and fanciest houses in town.)

Barnett Rubin, a leading expert on Afghanistan and a fellow at the 
Asia Society in New York and New York University's Center on 
International Cooperation, writes in a forthcoming study that "the 
location of narcotics cultivation is the result -- not the cause -- 
of insecurity." He adds, "Escalating forced eradication" -- as the 
U.S. Embassy wants to do -- "will only make the effort fail more 
quickly because it actually builds the insurgency it is trying to eliminate."

To be sure, breaking the narco-state in Afghanistan is essential, or 
all else will fail. But it will take years, and American policies 
today are working against their own objective. Couple that with the 
other most critical fact about the war in Afghanistan -- it cannot be 
won as long as the border areas in Pakistan are havens for the 
Taliban and al-Qaeda -- and you have the ingredients for a war that 
will last far longer than the war in Iraq, even if NATO sends more 
troops and the appalling National Police training program is finally 
fixed. Solving this problem requires bold, creative thinking. 
Consideration should be given to a temporary suspension of 
eradication in insecure areas, accompanied by an intensified effort 
to improve security, build small market-access roads and offer 
farmers free agricultural support.

When I offered these thoughts on this page almost two years ago [" 
Afghanistan: The Long Road Ahead," op-ed, April 2, 2006], I was told 
by several high-ranking U.S. government officials that I was too 
pessimistic. I hope they do not still think so. Even more, I hope 
they will reexamine the disastrous drug policies that are spending 
American tax dollars to strengthen America's enemies.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake