11-20-14 – Afghanistan’s Tainted Legacy

By John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS–The time is  ticking as American and NATO forces begin the countdown to military withdrawal from Afghanistan by year’s end.  But as Taliban militants watch the clock and the calendar, eagerly awaiting the foreign troop pullouts,  thus hoping to topple the country’s still teetering government,   still another threat as dangerous as the Islamic militants lurks in the shadows.

Over the past year, opium production surged 17% to hit a record high according to the United Nations.  Despite concerted international efforts to stop illicit narcotics production, the opium production in 2013 reached 6,400 tons compared with the previous year’s total of 5,500 tons.  And the scourge is getting worse.

Despite serious American anti-narco efforts of  $7.5 billion since 2001 to stop Afghanistan’s endemic drug trade,  the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC) reports near futile progress.

UNODC Director Yury Fedotov warned that Afghanistan’s narcotics problem remains a major global challenge; “The illicit opium economy and related criminality and corruption continue to undermine security, the rule of law, health and development in the region and beyond.”
Besides local warlords involved in narcotics, there’s a direct link to the Taliban Islamic militants opposing the fragile central government in Kabul. 

According to the  UN, “Afghanistan produces some 90 per cent of the world’s illicit opiates. Hilmand province, in the south, remains the country’s major opium cultivating area, followed by Kandahar. “  Helmand province was the site of some of the bloodiest encounters between largely British forces and Taliban fighters. 

UNDOC’s Fedotov stressed that illicit narcotics had a “disastrous” impact on the already embattled country.  The UN agency adds that “Afghanistan suffers one of the world’s highest prevalence rates for opiate use and HIV hepatitis are widespread among injecting drug users. ” More than a million Afghans are drug dependent.

Tragically in Afghanistan, drug trafficking is part of a larger web of government corruption, money laundering and terrorism.  Both the Taliban terrorists  and sectors of the central government are mired in the narcotics trade.   Afghanistan accounts for 90 percent of the global heroin supply.  Thus the drug scourge has serious implications far beyond this South Asian country. 

UNODC  concedes that the Afghanistan is plagued by  “fragmentation, conflict, patronage, corruption and impunity.” Sadly that’s probably an understatement.

Washington’s special inspector for Afghan reconstruction candidly admits that  the “narcotics trade poisons the Afghan financial sector and undermines the Afghan state’s legitimacy by stoking corruption.” 

UNDOC official Jean-Luc Lemahieu is quoted in the Wall St. Journal as saying that he drug trade is roughly equivalent to 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product! The narcotics industry indirectly employs over 400,000 people, larger than Afghanistan’s armed forces!

Newly elected Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has stressed the importance of anti-drug efforts but as part of expanding alternative agricultural opportunities. In Hilmand where the “food zone” alternative livelihood program ended in 2012, opium cultivation rose again by 13 per cent.  Even with an expansion of legal farming, opium provides six times the income as compared with growing wheat. 

Despite  the considerable American and NATO troop presence, opium poppy production has blossomed in this huge and rugged country.  So what after the Obama Administration’s mandated military pullout  by the end of 2014?  

Ironically Afghanistan’s  traditional tribal quilt of warlords and chiefs may become yet more dependent on revenues from the narcotics interests for funding as other foreign assistance support lessens or ends.   We must change this metric. 

So here’s the short term scenario: By 2015 there will be a strategic residual force of at least 10,000 American troops to help avoid the debacle the Obama Administration drifted into in Iraq earlier this year.  Psychologically a U.S. military presence stiffens Afghan military spirits and bolsters Afghan government resolve. 

But as vital to prevent the rise of a Taliban terrorist takeover in the next few years, both the U.S. and the Kabul government must equally focus on sustained opium eradication programs as to lessen Afghanistan’s global threat as a drug haven and exporter.  

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues.  He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations; Germany, Korea, China (2014).

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Peter Stevenson February 12, 2015 at 6:22 pm

The author fails to mention that much of the opium produced in Afghanistan is transported to Pakistan where it is refined to heroin. In fact Pakistan is one of those states-Mexico is another-that are teetering or have gone over the edge to become full fledged narco-states. That is bad for the United States as Mexico is our second largest trading partner (it would be our largest if you included the illicit trade) and Pakistan has the bomb.
The most significant error the author makes is the utter failure to employ basic common sense in his analysis of the figures- 7.5 billion dollars spent since 2001 on opium eradication and each year Afghanistan breaks it’s previous years total -perhaps we should stop throwing money into this bottomless pit and instead allow the free market to solve this pressing public policy problem by legalizing taxing and regulating the currently illicit trade. With over a trillion dollars spent since Nixon rededicated our fight in the drug war all we have to show for it is increased availability of drugs to our most vulnerable citizens (our children) increased purity, decreased prices, increasing gang violence and official corruption tied to the illicit trade, and overflowing prisons (in fact the US imprisons more people for drug law violations then Europe imprisons for all crimes combined) just to name a few.
The author goes on to to say “Both the US and Kabul government must equally focus on sustained opium eradication programs…” Doesn’t 7.5 billion dollars since 2001 count as a sustained effort? If not I would like to know what the magic number is so when it’s rapidly met we can do what Nixon did in Vietnam…declare victory and go home while there is still a home to go to.
In my mind John J. Metzler is a hack that should have nothing to do with public policy. And as far as the Ethan Allen institute is concerned I must state that being a libertarian is like being pregnant. you can’t be sorta pregnant and you cant be sorta libertarian. When are you going to look at our drug policy through a libertarian lens? My money is on NEVER.


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