Drugs or terror? We can’t fight both in Afghanistan

Fighting together against each other?
Fighting together against each other?

The War on Terror is moving into its second decade, the War on Drugs its fifth. In the fields of Afghanistan, however, they have reached an impasse.

Afghan opium production was recently announced to have increased for the third year in a row. It has now returned to a 75 per cent share of the global market. Internally opiates are also causing huge social problems, with 3 per cent of the population now addicted to heroin. Consequently, Afghanistan now has the dubious honour of being both the greatest producer and consumer of the world’s most lethal narcotic.

The US intervention initially had some success in stalling this trend, but since the end of the surge it is once again on the rise. Indeed, 388,000 hectares of land are now being cultivated for opium- a figure almost twice as high as before the invasion.

More surprising still is the fact that while in power the Taliban had remarkable success in curtailing and regulating opium production. Mullah Omar’s prohibition in 2001 saw the national output fall from 4042 tons to 81.6 tons in the space of a year. This demonstrates that contrary to popular thought, the Afghan narcotics trade can be stopped by a strong and willing government.

However, neither Washington nor Kabul are willing to make a substantive commitment to stemming the tide of opium production. The relatively tiny amount of funding granted as incentives to farmers to stop producing the crop proves this. The State Department’s most recent grant stood at $18.2 million, a meagre amount compared to the $3 trillion spent on the conflict as a whole. Clearly, therefore, far greater attention is being paid to the Taliban than the heroin trade.

The UN report also revealed that government propaganda programmes were hugely effective in curtailing opium production. But, once again, the Afghan government’s commitment to such initiatives is minimal. Indeed, it is of note that when the Taliban banned opium, it was the area controlled by the Northern Alliance (now the Afghan government) that accounted for the remaining cultivation. Quite clearly President Karzai has little intention to focus his limited resources on enforced prohibition.

The reason that the US has no desire to actively prevent opium production is the War on Terror. Opiates are, for better or worse, vital to the Afghan economy- currently around 15 per cent of the nation’s GDP is in narcotics. For this reason genuine commitment to eradicating the drug trade would undermine the already weak Afghan government, and increase support for the Taliban.

The War on Terror and War on Drugs have, therefore, left Afghanistan in limbo. The projection of American cultural values has prevented legalisation of the drug trade, while the necessities of war have stopped a crackdown on it. This has lead to a situation where the government is not profiting from narcotics, and their enemies are being funding by them.

The problem is further compounded by the issue of heroin addiction. Despite one million addicted citizens, the Afghan government has done relatively little. The huge production levels and lack of regulation have led to a gram of heroin costing as little as $6, and being readily available across the nation. At the same time there are only 2,305 beds at addiction clinics in the entire country. This shows that American attitudes to drugs are doing nothing more than exacerbating a desperate situation.

Afghanistan’s most viable option at this point is to legalise opium. In doing so, trade could be controlled and taxed; the Taliban would lose funding; farmers would not become enemies of the state; and addicts could receive proper treatment. The Afghan government, however, cannot risk alienating its most important backer, the United States, and so it is paralysed.

The confluence of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs has been disastrous. Both doctrines are crippling one another. Legalisation has now become a necessity to fulfill the United States’ ambition of creating a pro-western stable Afghanistan. Unless America wishes to see its intervention come to nothing in a year’s time, it must jettison the War on Drugs.