In today's New York Times an op-ed piece titled "Afghanistan’s Unending Addiction" the editorial board discusses the US and international failures in pursuing any meaningful strategy to eliminate the production of illegal opium in Afghanistan. This is something I was on the periphery of in 2005-2006 while mobilized and serving in Afghanistan. The solution always seemed very obvious to me, yet elusive to these decision-makers effecting policy. Too many times I sat in meetings with senior officials looking for a panacea that avoided risk of any sort, acceptable to the international community, accomplished in no more than a year (usual posting of senior officials in Afghanistan) and could be done on the cheap.
Reducing opium production in Afghanistan was a possibility in the last decade. Early in the campaign a critical error by coalition leadership was to identify drug lords, al-Qaeda and the Taliban as a singular enemy. The approach resulted in these entities finding a common objective (opposing coalition forces in Afghanistan) rather than warring among themselves. A more nuanced approach would have kept these groups from collaborating. Enemies with differing objectives are more manageable than an enemies with a single objective providing support to each other.
The coalition lacked the intestinal fortitude to complete the mission. The statement in the article is correct that focusing on the farmers rather than the other key players is and was a mistake. Farmers in Afghanistan are nothing more than sharecroppers committed through economic dependence and culture to the drug lords. Trying to put the Afghan government or NGO’s between the farmers and the drug lords is a doomed strategy. Stepping into the cycle of dependence for farmers and trying to create a new cultural paradigm failed time and again. Farmers remain dependent on the drug lord for everything. Simply, if the farmer needs a roof for his house, the drug lord provides the material. If he needs medicine for his family the drug lord provides. This is consistent with the tribal mentality of this culture. Citizens do not look to the government for solutions, they look only as far as their community and its leadership. In the case of a poppy farmer, it is the drug lord. Let's not try to derail this long-standing system.
The real target of coalition efforts needs to be the drug lord. There has to be a real motivation to change their product (legal farming), stay within their successful business model and provide a level of potential profit at or near the levels they have become accustomed to. This of course cannot happen overnight. So during the transition period, the coalition nations could have spent the wasted billions on buying every bit of the produced inventory over a relatively short period of three or four years. During this period, alternative crops such as saffron and almonds could be substituted for current opium producing crops. Coalition nations can provide access to markets and legitimate distribution channels. Saffron is more expensive than opium, the hard cost of producing is almost the same without out the added expense and risk of the opium business. It legitimizes the drug lords, reduces their dependence on those promoting violence in Afghanistan and divides our enemies’ objectives and efforts. For those appalled that the international community would do business with the drug lords and ultimately legitimize their effort, let me remind you that this model has been used successfully around the world in the political arena, when groups that at one time were challenging the authority of a government were welcomed into the political process and legitimized. If this is not enough to convince the producers to shift products, then the coalition of nations needs to make an offer that cannot be refused. That’s right, do it or die. In most parts of the world the only universally understood motivation is believing that unmerciful force will be brought to bear for failure to comply. Without the threat of and the commitment to use force, there cannot be a successful strategy. The transition can be peaceful, but the odds are there will one or more that will not comply. They must be dealt with quickly, severely and definitively.
While there have been attempts to introduce such a product into production in Afghanistan, it is without the support, endorsement and participation of the largest agricultural entities (the drug lords) in Afghanistan. If saffron production begins to compete or threatens opium production, the results could be tragic for those involved.
Change will occur in Afghanistan if the United States and the international community is willing to commit to all the elements of a power.