Why The War On Heroin Is Poppycock


Last year, preparing to travel to Bucharest for the NATO-plus summit, Kevin Rudd was asked by a journalist how he would deal with opium production in Afghanistan. He answered, "My own view, and you asked for it directly, is this: crops should be eliminated, crop substitution should occur and where necessary financial subsidies to the farmers concerned so that there is a continued economic incentive to remain in viable agriculture or other forms of viable economic activity."

It is an indication of Rudd’s naivety that he found confidence in such a simple solution. In reality, dealing with drugs in that heroin-ravaged state is a dog’s breakfast — and no quick fix looks likely anytime soon.

Indeed, last year in the Washington Post, Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, argued that the drug-eradication strategy in Afghanistan "may be the single most ineffective policy in the history of American foreign policy". He went further, writing, "it’s not just a waste of money. It actually strengthens the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as many criminal elements within Afghanistan." 

So why do drug eradication programs in Afghanistan present so many problems?

For a start, there’s the dilemma of whether or not to pay farmers for their destroyed crops, as Rudd proposed. If you do, then you encourage farmers to plant poppies again the following year — as well as encouraging those who aren’t producing poppies to begin doing so. If a farmer is lucky enough to avoid having his crops destroyed, then the price he will fetch for his harvest will be vastly inflated following the simple principles of demand and supply. On the other hand, if farmers are not paid for their eradicated crops, they are likely to express their gratitude by joining the Taliban.

Then there’s the problem of how physically to destroy the poppies. You can employ ground-based teams of police to use tractors and whipper snippers to dig up the plants but this process is inefficient, expensive, dangerous and vulnerable to corruption. Alternatively, you can use crop-dusters to spray pesticides on the poppies from the air. This option is efficient but deeply opposed by farmers who fear it will forever poison their soil.

On this question, former president George W Bush was adamant. In 2006 at Camp David, he declared his suit to Hamid Karzai: "I’m a spray man myself." The Afghan President wasn’t having a bar of it.

Karzai has long been opposed to aerial spraying, claiming he fears an uprising from farmers that would threaten his leadership. But Karzai has reasons beyond disgruntled farmers to fear aerial spraying. Although he has many Taliban enemies who finance themselves with drug profits, many of his supporters do too.

For example Karzai’s younger brother, Ahmad Wali Khan Karzai, now a representative of Kandahar province in the Loya Jirga, has long been suspected of being in the drug trade. Izzatullah Wasifi, Karzai’s childhood friend who was once jailed for trying to sell 650 grams of heroin to an undercover detective while living in the US, is now head of the country’s anticorruption commission. His responsibilities include Afghanistan’s drug trafficking problems. Scores of other officials appointed by the Karzai administration are well entrenched in poppy trafficking.

Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun whose power base lies in the Helmand and Kandahar provinces where most of Afghanistan’s poppies are grown. The simple political reality is that he cannot hold together a national government without the support of the drug-soaked warlords and local commanders of the south.

In the past few months the Obama Administration has taken Holbrooke’s advice and wound down poppy eradication programs in favour of a new strategy — using the military to target the drug labs and distribution networks used by traffickers. In the short term, this could certainly disrupt the drug barons’ operations and make life a little more difficult for them. But, as we’ve seen time and time again in South America and elsewhere, the barons always find ever more ingenious ways to prosecute their business. It’s difficult to see them having much to fear in a country where corruption is at stellar levels, where the building of the national police and national armies has not met expectations, and where convicted traffickers routinely walk in through the front door of a prison, pay a bribe and then walk out the back.

In any case, the US military traditionally has had trouble maintaining enthusiasm for anti-drug programs: the Pentagon’s top brass tend to view the War on Terror as the main game with drug eradication as a civilian policing issue outside of their remit. The preferred Pentagon strategy is "sequencing" — defeat the Taliban, then have someone else go after the drug barons once the fighting’s over.

The British military is even more hostile toward counter-narcotics activities: in 2006 they issued leaflets and broadcast radio advertisements saying they were not part of any anti-poppy effort. And as Western leaders find it increasingly difficult to persuade their constituents to keep supplying the necessary troops and to accept the resulting casualties in fighting a resurgent Taliban, military adventurism against drugs may well give way to humbler ambitions: simply avoiding total state failure.

The 2001 invasion by the US and its allies hauled Afghanistan into a familiar situation: a weak central government bolstered by a foreign power and much of the rest of the country ruled by a motley crew of warlords forever switching and juggling allegiances. As long as it’s both a poor and unstable country, beset by corrupt officials and with few functioning institutions, Afghanistan will remain a major supplier of poppies and heroin for many years to come. The "war on terror", like the Soviet-Afghan war of the 1980s and the civil war of the early 1990s, has provided the perfect conditions for the flourishing of the poppy trade.

Right now, with violence erupting across the nation in advance of tomorrow’s election, there is little incentive for Afghans to curb opium production. They know that the real beneficiary of poppy eradication is the West — where most of the market is. Afghanistan, like every other narco-state, is being asked to pay an enormous price for what is, in the end, someone else’s problem.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.