In the crowded Afghan capital of Kabul, opulent marble homes sit behind guard houses and razor wire. “Most are owned by Afghan officials or people connected to them, men who make a few hundred dollars a month as government employees but are driven around in small convoys of armored SUVs that cost tens of thousands of dollars,” reporter Tom Lasseter noted recently. “[M]any of the houses were built with profits harvested from opium poppy fields in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.”
The so-called “poppy palaces” are outward signs of a cancer eating Afghanistan to its core: illicit drugs and narcoterrorism, aided by official corruption.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan grows more than 90 percent of the world's opium, which is used to produce heroin and morphine. Total opium production for 2008 was estimated at 7,700 metric tons, more than double the 2002 level.
In her new book, Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda, journalist Gretchen Peters says militant groups are raising hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the opium trade.
“It's clear that drug money is paying for the Taliban's operational costs within Afghanistan,” she told Time magazine. “That means that every time a U.S. soldier is killed in an IED attack or a shootout with militants, drug money helped pay for that bomb or paid the militants who placed it…. The Taliban have now thrown off their old masters and are a full-fledged criminal force on both sides of the [Afghan-Pakistan] border.”
The biggest challenge to curbing the drug trade, Peters said, is corruption. “As much money as the insurgents are earning off the drug trade, corrupt officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan are earning even more,” she said. “It's going to be very complex for the U.S. and for the international community, for NATO, to find reliable and trustworthy partners to work with. I don't think that it is widely understood how high up the corruption goes within the Pakistani government, particularly within their military and intelligence forces.”
In recent weeks, the Obama administration has shifted U.S. drug policy in Afghanistan from trying to eradicate poppy fields to seizing drugs and related supplies and helping farmers grow alternative crops.
“The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure,” Richard C. Holbrooke, the administration's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said. “They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work and they alienated people and drove people into the arms of the Taliban.”
The Bush administration had advocated intense efforts to eradicate poppy fields, but some experts have said the approach is counterproductive.
“The United States should de-emphasize opium eradication efforts,” Air Force Lt. Col. John A. Glaze wrote in a 2007 report for the U.S. Army War College. It recommended a multi-pronged strategy including higher troop levels, more economic aid for Afghanistan, pursuit of drug lords and corrupt officials and development of alternative livelihoods for Afghans, plus exploration of the possibility of participating in the market for legal opiates used for morphine and other medicines.
“U.S.-backed eradication efforts have been ineffective and have resulted in turning Afghans against U.S. and NATO forces …,” Glaze wrote. “While the process of eradication lends itself well to the use of flashy metrics such as ‘acres eradicated,’ eradication without provision for long-term alternative livelihoods is devastating Afghan's poor farmers without addressing root causes.”
Brookings Institution scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on Afghanistan's opium-poppy economy, says rural development, not poppy eradication, is the best way to attack the drug economy. “Any massive eradication right now …, we would lose Afghanistan,” she says. “In the absence of resources available to farmers, any eradication would just prompt massive destabilization and invite the Taliban in.”
Felbab-Brown says the development of new crops is key, but that such crops must be “high-labor-intensive, high-value crops” that offer more than subsistence income.
“People don't have to become rich, but they cannot continue existing in excruciating poverty. Many people will be willing and motivated to switch to a legal crop,” she says, but “it needs to offer some chance of advancement.”
Vegetable, fruit and horticultural crops are better options, Felbab-Brown says. Wheat, on the other hand, “has no traction” because the prices are low, people in vast parts of the country don't have enough land to make the crop pay, and wheat is much less labor-intensive than poppy growing, affording fewer opportunities for employment, she says.
For rural development to offer an alternative to illicit poppy production, it must include not only access to land, legal microcredit and other features, but security for Afghan farmers, Felbab-Brown stresses.
“The lack of security in many ways is the key structural driver of illicit crop cultivation, because the risks of cultivating legal crops in insecure settings are just tremendous,” she says.
Rural development, for example, “needs to involve roads, and not just their physical presence but also security on the roads,” Felbab-Brown says. Roads are now insecure due to both the insurgents and the Afghan National Police.
“In much of the south, travel on the road is three times as expensive as travel in the north because of the number of bribes that one needs to pay at check stops. For many people, simply to take crops from Laskar Gah to Kandahar, by the time they pay the bribes that they need to pay, they will have lost all profit.”