Tackling Afghanistan’s Opium Problem

ap080425031830Yesterday the New York Times revealed that 50 Afghan drug traffickers with ties to the Taliban were on the U.S. military’s “kill or capture” list. Today the Senate Foreign Relations Committee released the report that the Times article was based on, adding further detail.

The 50 traffickers on the 367-strong target list are not subject to “targeted assassinations,” but U.S. and NATO troops do have authorization to kill or capture them if they’re encountered on the battlefield. The ruckus over the addition of drug traffickers to the kill-or-capture list points to the increased importance of the international community’s counternarcotics effort in the renewed effort in Afghanistan.

It’s become conventional wisdom that the Taliban receive large sums of money from the drug trade – the SFRC report cites military and UN estimates of between $70 million and $125 million a year in drug income. But conventional wisdom could be wrong. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the United States’ Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has stated on more than one occasion that the Taliban’s primary source of funds are sympathizers in Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Qatar – not the illicit opium trade.

But this uncertainty over the opium trade’s role in funding the Taliban doesn’t mean the United States should give up on trying to tackle the problem. As the SFRC report shows, the Taliban use protection of the opium trade as a critical component of their establishment of a parallel government in parts of Afghanistan. In exchange for this protection, the Taliban extract taxes from opium farmers, heroin manufacturers, and drug traffickers.

Insurgents often impose taxes on populations as a means of legitimating their rule in addition to the obvious purpose of raising funds. The underlying argument runs like this: unlike the Afghan government and international forces, we, the Taliban, will let you farmers (and drug traffickers) continue to grow and trade opium as you’ve been doing. All we ask in exchange for our protection is a small tax.

This dynamic is more complex than a simple racket. The Taliban don’t have to threaten anyone’s opium-based livelihood to reap the benefits of offering protection – early international efforts at crop eradication do that work for them. So the opium trade as it stands now probably reaps the Taliban bigger political benefits than financial ones. The key for the United States and NATO will be to break the embryonic political link between opium cultivators, traders, and traffickers, and the Taliban.

The new effort in Afghanistan has shifted efforts away from attempts to eradicate opium that have marked U.S. counternarcotics efforts in the past and toward crop substitution and agricultural development. The USDA plans to increase its presence in Afghanistan to 64 personnel by early next year to assist in this effort. But it remains to be seen whether this commitment to increased civilian personnel actually translates into more civilian boots on the ground in areas where they’re needed. Are our civilian institutions up to the task? We’re about to find out the hard way.