Afghanistan’s Food and Drug Administration

Do you think the new regime in Afghanistan will be committed to eradicating opium production?

December 12, 2001

Do you think the new regime in Afghanistan will be committed to eradicating opium production?

Let us make one thing clear from the get-go: we don’t want to suggest that any conditions be tied to the delivery of food aid, which starving Afghans desperately need to get through the winter. But by the same token, there should be a clear link between financial aid from the West and Afghan cooperation on stopping drug exports.

Some argue that establishing such a form of conditionality is tantamount to putting the cart before the horse. First, we must rebuild Afghanistan — then we can turn to challenges such as eradicating the opium scourge, the argument goes.

But is there anything magical — or compelling — about this particular sequence of events? There are many reasons to doubt there is. Let’s start with the question of who will use the proceeds of the drug sales and for what purpose.

Between 1996 and 1999, opium production was a major revenue source for the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. It was not until June 2000 that international pressure on the mullahs led them to curtail opium production. As a result, Afghanistan — which had produced 4,581 metric tons of opium poppies in 1999 (or 79% of the world’s total) — only produced about 185 tons of these same poppies in 2001.

The Taliban’s eradication campaign declared that poppy cultivation violated the teachings of Islam. Yet, experts were under no illusion about the likely motivation of Afghanistan’s former religious leaders. More than any notions of morality or overarching principle, they were concerned about being able to drive up the market price of existing supplies.

And this is precisely where the opium topic becomes relevant in the context of the current debate over extending aid to Afghanistan. In fact, it is hard to conceive granting extensive aid to the country on a lasting basis — unless ending opium production is part of the deal.

The most compelling argument in favor of this proposal is Afghanistan’s scarcity of arable land. Much of the country’s farmland is unusable because of land mines, prolonged drought — and destroyed irrigation systems. It would truly be a perversion that under the likely circumstances, acres and acres of prime farmland are used to grow poppies. Meanwhile, only a few miles away Afghans are starving.

But there are other good reasons to take a hard line on Afghanistan’s drug industry. In any transitional — and highly fluid — situation such as the one faced by Afghanistan, one must be wary of who exactly among the domestic players has ample financial resources at this early stage — and for what purposes they are being deployed. To be sure, profits from the drug business are high — and people involved in the trade are not exactly pillars of society on whose reliable shoulders one would want to rebuild a society.

In fact, rather the opposite is the case. These shadowy figures typically use their ill-gotten profits for further illicit purposes, effectively undermining or jackknifing the building of honest and dependable economic structures in their societies.

Ironically, Russia — which had its own disastrous Afghanistan adventure — learned that same lesson after the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. The ascendancy of corrupt and criminal oligarchs was a severe roadblock in the transition to a democratic and transparent system. The same mistake should not be made in Afghanistan by giving the local drug lords a free rein.

That is why it seems reasonable to tell the new Afghan regime in no uncertain terms that the eradication of present and any future poppy production is mandatory. As a down payment and evidence of goodwill, the new government should cough up the present stockpiles held back for market entry from recent years of production.

How hard will it be to find the stuff? Well, it won’t be easy — but the job can surely be accomplished. Moreover, the signaling power of meeting this condition is vitally important in the overarching effort of rebuilding Afghanistan. The message is clear: a break with murky traditions of the past must be accomplished swiftly.

Aid-giving countries cannot tolerate any laxness in this regard. If they fail on this account, they would undermine right from the outset the very conditions all of their aid payments are supposed to bring about for Afghanistan.

Sure, forcing some clans to give up the lucrative drug trade might lead to some factional infighting in the short term. But it would certainly improve the chances of a sustained political and economic recovery in Afghanistan.

Now, who has particular reason to care about establishing this linkage? It is first and foremost the Europeans who need to worry about opium from Afghanistan.

That country is not only the world’s largest producer of this drug, but it accounts for a stunning 95% of Europe’s opium consumption. In contrast, only 5% of opium consumed in the United States comes from Afghan sources.

But this discrepancy in consumption patterns does not mean that U.S. policymakers would necessarily shy away from tackling this tough choice. And neither are the Europeans in a position where they cannot make their voice heard on this important issue.

Now, admittedly there are many experts who doubt the advisability of this whole approach. One of the more legitimate concerns addresses the issue of cracking down in case of violation of the “no opium” rule.

Would the West really be prepared to cut any aid to Afghanistan under those circumstances? How could that possibly mesh with humanitarian concerns?

In the drug-running context, it helps that the very notion of “Afghanistan” is a hybrid one. As most of the world knows quite well by now, the country is really a complex amalgamation of tribes and mini-regions.

Most of the drug activity can be pinned down to specific areas and tribal entities — and possibly even family units — in Afghanistan. Thus, when violations occur, the trick will be to tie them back to specific entities — which may then have to face the consequences of sanctions, such as reduced aid flows.

In the end, it all boils down to a question of self-interest of the people of Afghanistan. They may have been too weak to flush out the Taliban regime by themselves. But they are hardly impotent as regards dealing with the drug problem — and the longer term problems, such as corruption and violence, that are associated with it. In fact, Afghanistan’s self-interest is properly aligned. No drugs equals uninterrupted flows of aid money, as well as the reverse.

In conclusion, lest the world wants to have Afghanistan become an eternal ward of incompetence, instability, crime, intrigue, inability and helplessness, it has next to no choice but to impose a clear linkage between aid-giving and opium eradication.