December 15, 2004
By Sudha Ramachandran
With poppy cultivation in Afghanistan touching new highs in 2004, eradication measures to stamp out the cultivation of the crop are expected to turn more aggressive in the coming months. However, the deep rage and resentment generated by recent incidents of aerial spraying of chemicals on poppy crops in the eastern provinces of Afghanistan indicates that the Afghan government, and the US and Britain - the two countries that are at the forefront of the international effort to combat the Afghan narcotics trade - might need to move more cautiously.
According to the UN Afghanistan Opium Survey 2004, opium cultivation in Afghanistan this year has shown a 64% increase in comparison with 2003. However, because of bad weather and disease, the 2004 opium yield per hectare had been lowered by almost 30%, resulting in a total output of 4,200 tons. While this is lower than the 1999 output of 4,600 tons, the 2004 output is 17% higher than in 2003. Today Afghanistan accounts for 87% of the world's opium cultivation and this year earned an estimated US$2.8 billion. A tenth of the Afghan population is involved in the production and trade of opium.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, in perhaps his strongest remarks on the topic, has urged Afghans to wage jihad - or holy war - against drugs, much as they did against the Soviet army in the 1980s. Karzai, Afghanistan's first popularly elected president, called poppy farming a national disgrace.
Drawing attention to the seriousness of the problem, Antonio Maria Costa, director of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, said, "In Afghanistan, drugs are now a clear and present danger. The fear that Afghanistan might degenerate into a narco-state is becoming a reality," he warned.
The 2004 survey reveals that opium cultivation has spread to all of Afghanistan's 32 provinces, with 56% of total cultivation taking place in only three provinces - Badakhshan, Nangarhar and Helmand.
It was over the poppy fields in Nangarhar province, in villages abutting the Tora Bora mountains, that aerial spraying of chemicals kicked up a controversy recently. According to reports in the media, unidentified aircraft flew back and forth over poppy fields in Nangarhar spraying "a snow-like substance" - chemicals - on the crops. The chemicals have not only destroyed the poppy crop, but also ruined fruit and vegetables that were being cultivated there, besides affecting the health of villagers and their livestock. Hundreds of villagers have reportedly shown up at hospitals with skin ailments and breathing problems.
Not surprisingly, the dusting of the poppy crops with herbicide has triggered off immense anger among the villagers, who see the destruction of the poppy crops - their only source of income - as destruction of their livelihood. The poorer farmers now face economic ruin. Who is behind the chemical spraying of the crops is still unclear. The Karzai government insists that it is opposed to "aerial spraying as an instrument of eradication" of the poppy crop and "has not authorized any foreign entity, any foreign government, any foreign company, or anyone else to carry out aerial spraying".
Most Afghans point an accusing finger at the Americans or the British, but both countries have denied involvement in the spraying. The US Embassy in Kabul insists that the US government has "not conducted any aerial eradication [of the poppy crop], nor has it contracted or subcontracted anyone to do it on its behalf". It also denies knowing who carried out the spraying.
However, few in Afghanistan appear to be convinced by the US denial. After all, as pointed out by Hajji Din Muhammad, the governor of Nangarhar, "The Americans control the airspace of Afghanistan, and not even a bird can fly without them knowing."
Afghan officials have also pointed out that the Americans have been arguing for many months now in favor of chemical eradication of Afghanistan's poppy crops. This is a strategy they have used to tackle coca cultivation in Colombia, despite the anger it has triggered among the coca farmers, and they are keen to adopt that strategy in Afghanistan.
Anti-narcotics officials in Kabul argue that the recent chemical spraying appears to have been carried out not so much with the intention of eradicating the poppy crop - the plants are too young at this juncture for spraying to take real effect, they point out - as it is to stir anger among the farmers. According to these officials, therefore, the chemical spraying was the work of major players in the Afghan drug trade, who are seeking to build up mass opposition to the "real" eradication efforts planned for the next few months.
Whatever the motivation of those behind the chemical spraying, it is clear from the recent episode in Nangarhar province that adopting tactics such as crop-dusting raids as part of a new robust and aggressive policy to fight the Afghan drug trade could prove counter-productive. It could alienate the very people - the Afghan peasants - whose support the US-backed government is trying to win over.
Critics of the US-British approach have pointed out that in order to check the supply of narcotics to their countries they are targeting desperately poor farmers, while avoiding the political price that comes with taking stern action to tackle demand for drugs in their countries. Some have suggested action against those higher up in the narcotics trade chain. But this the Americans and the British have failed to do. Those who languish in Afghan jails for narcotics-related offences are the small-time peddlers, not the big players in the business. US forces have also ignored warlords' involvement in the opium trade in exchange for their help in fighting al-Qaeda and the Taliban.
Analysts have also argued that Washington has exaggerated the links between al-Qaeda and the drug trade. In an article in Terrorism Monitor, Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy draws attention to "the minimal role this [the drug economy] plays in al-Qaeda's finances". He points out that "a few cases have been highlighted by the media as evidence of al-Qaeda tapping into the opium economy of Afghanistan, even though the claims in themselves do not constitute an argument for the existence of any organized form of 'narco-terrorism'."
He cites the findings of the 9-11 Commission, according to which there is "no substantial evidence that al-Qaeda played a major role in the drug trade or relied on it as an important source of revenue either before or after" September 11, 2001, and that "intelligence collection efforts have failed to corroborate rumors of current narcotic trafficking. In fact, there is compelling evidence the al-Qaeda leadership does not like or trust those who today control the drug trade in Southwest Asia, and has encouraged its members not to get involved."
Chouvy points out, "Recent efforts to link the narcotics economy to terrorism really aim at linking the war on drugs to the war on terrorism, and vice-versa. While drugs and terrorism are not necessarily the two faces of the same coin in Afghanistan, the war on drugs and the war on terrorism may serve the same political agenda. A clear example is the current efforts of the US Southern Command to guarantee the prolongation of its enhanced funding by raising the threat of 'narco-terrorism' in Latin America, where US military aid and training, which previously were focused on counter-narcotics operations, have now been re-tasked as counter-terrorism responsibilities."
That Afghanistan's booming opium trade poses a threat to stability and security within the country and outside cannot be denied. Washington's anxiety to tackle the problem is therefore understandable. The problem lies with its approach to fight the problem. Some in the administration of US President George W Bush have called for direct US military action against traffickers in Afghanistan. But others have argued that battling Afghanistan's drug trade is primarily a law-enforcement problem, not a military one, and must be led by local Afghan forces. Drawing US troops into drug fights, they have cautioned, would alienate Afghan peasants and undermine the core US military mission in Afghanistan of fighting the insurgents.
Alienation of Afghans is just what might happen under the new US plan, which among other things calls for destruction of poppy fields covering an area five to seven times larger than that eradicated this year. The destruction is to be offset by more than $100 million in aid to Afghan farmers to plant substitute crops and for other rural economic development projects.
The anger that was generated by the recent "mysterious" chemical spraying in Nangarhar signals that Washington's war on poppy cultivators in Afghanistan could go very wrong. Washington will have to take on the big players in the opium trade, but that it appears reluctant to do, as some of them are its allies. Besides, it is reluctant to open up new fronts to fight in Afghanistan.
Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore.
Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd.