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New U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan Leaves Critics Dissatisfied

Richard Weitz

On August 9, the Bush Administration issued its revised U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan. The main innovation is the explicit use of enhanced “sticks and carrots” to change Afghans’ behavior. Protracted infighting within the administration in recent weeks about timing and tactics had twice delayed the new strategy’s publication. Despite the extra editing time, senior Democrats and Republicans in Congress called the revisions inadequate given the magnitude of the problem.

Preliminary assessments of the data the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime plans to release next month indicate that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has increased by 15 percent during the past year, making the country responsible for approximately 95 percent of the world’s total production. Although acknowledging their disappointment, U.S. officials argued this staggering figure actually presented an opportunity since any reductions in Afghan opium would make a major contribution to reducing global supplies.

At the roll-out, the architects of the administration’s revised policy—John Walters, U.S. director of national drug control policy, and Thomas A. Schweich, acting assistant secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs—argued that the main principles underpinning the five-pillar Afghan counternarcotics strategy, announced two years ago, remained essentially correct.

The five core elements of the strategy consist of (1) waging an effective public information campaign; (2) providing opium farmers with alternative livelihood opportunities through their redirection into legal employment activities; (3) eradicating opium crops; (4) interdicting the flow of narcotics within and beyond Afghanistan; and (5) promoting justice reform initiatives aimed at enhancing the capacity of Afghan law enforcement agencies to prosecute major narcotics traffickers through their imprisonment or extradition.

Walters and Schweich stressed that opium production in Afghanistan varied dramatically by region. Some northern provinces had either experienced reductions in poppy cultivation or were now entirely poppy-free, while other Afghan provinces, mostly in the south where the security environment had deteriorated, had seen explosive increases in recent years. The U.S. officials argued that the variations in local results indicated that the principles behind the strategy were sound but were not always applied effectively throughout Afghanistan.

According to administration representatives, the major U.S. agencies engaged in countering Afghanistan’s narcotics trafficking sought to improve the application of the five-pillar strategy by deriving appropriate lessons from these regional variations. Practices that seemed to work in one province would be applied in others. Important changes would include more rapidly rewarding newly drug-free provinces with developmental assistance (e.g., a new schoolhouse); increasing support for alternative livelihoods; improving integration between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency activities; and expanding programs designed to increase the capacity of Afghan government institutions to conduct anti-illicit drug programs.

A main objective of the revisions was to counter the phenomenon of “negotiated eradication.” In many cases, Afghan government eradicators and powerful local officials would bargain over where and under what conditions the eradication campaign would occur. The resulting deals would typically disrupt carefully planned eradication campaigns that sought to target farmers who had the most viable alternative means of livelihood. The administration plans to provide enhanced force protection to Afghan government eradicators to allow them to attack high-value targets such as major drug traffickers. U.S. officials still advocate employing aerial spraying of hard-to-reach target areas, but continued Afghan and British opposition to such an approach makes its adoption unlikely.

The revised strategy prioritizes the reduction of opium cultivation in Helmand Province, where approximately half of Afghanistan’s narcotics production occurs. According to administration assessments, a tailored combination of incentives and punishments might dramatically improve matters there. Since Helmand is one of Afghanistan’s wealthiest provinces, its inhabitants have many options for pursuing alternative livelihoods. U.S. data indicate that many of the local farmers started producing opium only within the last two years. During the next year, the administration plans to allocate about $270 million in aid to the province, which would make Helmand—if it were a country—the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. development aid in the world.

In recent months, members of Congress have increasingly complained about the administration’s policies regarding Afghan narcotics. They have expressed particular dissatisfaction with persistent reports of severe coordination problems among the U.S. agencies involved in the effort. According to local observers, Drug Enforcement Agency officers in Afghanistan lack adequate transportation and other logistical capabilities to confront drug smugglers without considerable U.S. military support. Yet, U.S. commanders remain reluctant to divert resources from counterinsurgency missions to eradication and interdiction efforts. Afghanistan’s own counternarcotics units have also run into difficulties securing U.S. military support in targeting the increasingly well-armed drug traffickers. The revised strategy calls for enhanced military participation in the counternarcotics campaign in Afghanistan, but does not provide detailed proposals on how to accomplish this objective.

In a joint statement following the release of the Afghan strategy document, the senior Democrat and Republican members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs—Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Lantos, a California Democrat, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican—complained that the plan fails to recognize “that Afghanistan is approaching a crisis point, and that immediate action is required to eliminate the threat of drug kingpins and cartels allied with terrorists so we can reverse the country’s steady slide into a potential failed narco-state.”

At the end of his August 5-6 meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai at Camp David, U.S. President George Bush told the media that the two men had “spent more than a fair amount of time” on the Afghan narcotics crisis. Karzai acknowledged, “Yes, we do have the problem of poppies and narcotics in Afghanistan,” but added that “it will take time” to overcome this problem even with substantial foreign assistance.

The U.S. government will give Afghanistan $10 billion this year, of which about $600 million funds counternarcotics initiatives. The proposed revisions in the U.S counternarcotics strategy would only modestly increase this total. For example, the administration aims to approximately double the spending allocated to rewarding provincial governments that make greater progress in curbing regional narcotics trafficking. The new total, however, would only rise at most to $50 million in developmental assistance.

Since 2001, the U.S. government has spent about $1.6 billion in countering Afghanistan’s narcotics production. In comparison, a July 31 report issued by the State Department Inspector General Howard J. Krongard, estimated the current “street value” of Afghan narcotics at $38 billion if it were all refined into heroin and sold in London markets. Neither administration officials nor members of Congress seem prepared to spend such sums despite their shared concerns about the dangers of Afghan opium.

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