New TNI report on drug control and war in Afghanistan

05 December 2006

Questions and answers about the new report of TNI on the war and opium in Afghanistan.

A dramatic upsurge in opium poppy cultivation and the unexpectedly forceful Taliban offensive in Afghanistan have triggered a wave of panic that is sweeping through the international community. After some initial promising steps, peace-building efforts, reconstruction and sustainable approaches to reduce the country's dependence on the opium economy are now rapidly losing ground. In the report Losing Ground: Drug Control and War in Afghanistan, the Transnational Institute (TNI) looked into the policy dilemmas and offers some recommendations on possible solutions for the current quagmire.

"Politicians look at the Taliban, drug traffickers and opium fields with a similar distorted logic," says Martin Jelsma, one of the authors of the report. "They view them as malign elements, which have to be killed, arrested and eradicated to reduce their numbers until the problem disappears. However, the causes underlying the current developments in Afghanistan are deep-rooted and complex, and quick fix solutions based on this destructive logic are illusory."

The growing insurgency and increased opium production both have roots in insecurity, enduring poverty, disappointment over government performance and the international community's reconstruction efforts, resentment about harassment by local warlords and foreign forces alike, and anger over forced poppy eradication taking place in a corrupt environment and without alternatives being put in place. Now, indeed, both factors are starting to mutually reinforce one another.

Excessive Violence

If the escalating spiral of violence is not broken, any other objective in terms of reconstruction or drug control is an illusion. The violence is often simplistically attributed to the Taliban alone, with the fight against it viewed in the context of 'global war against terrorism'. Many Afghans join the Taliban out of anger over the excessive violence of US and NATO forces.

The foreign presence, which is intended to bring security, has become one of the key factors contributing to the escalation. "It is becoming more and more clear that the insurgency cannot be defeated by military means and that foreign military operations have become the main mobilising factor behind it," says Jelsma. One British officer, after leaving the military, even referred to the current dynamic as a "textbook case of how to screw up a counter-insurgency". The dilemma calls for a fundamental strategy re-assessment.

"This includes difficult and controversial topics such as creating the conditions for reconciliation talks with the various insurgent factions, including the Taliban," says Tom Kramer who conducted a fact-finding mission in Afghanistan this year. Some initiatives have already been taken in this regard, showing the potential for pursuing this option and recognising that anti-government groups in Afghanistan do not form a monolithic 'Taliban' block. Rethinking the strategy will also require regional talks with Pakistan and Iran about a constructive engagement to prevent further escalation.

"There is an urgent need to devote more attention to state-building efforts and Afghan ownership over policy decision making now far too dependent of its donor relations," according to Kramer. Another urgent issue is to address the corruption and misbehaviour of state officials and police commanders, and to make a serious commitment to establishing the rule of law throughout the country.

Last but not least, the brutality of some of the military tactics used by foreign forces has to end (treatment of prisoners, harassment during house searches, civilian casualties of bombing raids, etc.), and a discussion is needed about whether and how to retreat those forces to provincial capitals or to Kabul - including scenarios to pull troops out of the country eventually.

Drug Control

The opium economy in Afghanistan is a consequence of twenty years of warfare, the destruction of infrastructure and the legal economy, and a massive displacement of people. A sustainable reduction is only possible if these root causes are addressed, licit livelihood opportunities are created, state building is strengthened and good governance practices spread around the provinces. However, the calls for harsher measures to eradicate opium are now becoming fashionable.

These harsher measures include calls for NATO involvement in drug control, and the use of more aggressive eradication techniques, such as aerial spraying with herbicides or the introduction of a poppy-killing fungus.

"Such moves towards a Colombia-style 'Plan Afghanistan' would be the worst possible path to take," says Jelsma. "Colombia is a dramatic example of how such measures can put in motion a vicious cycle resulting in further escalations." Such dangerous fantasies will have devastating consequences not only for the farmers and their families, but also for prospects of stabilisation and peace building in the country at large. "A first important line to draw is to keep NATO forces fully out of drug control operations," says Jelsma.

There is a general recognition that involving foreign forces directly in the eradication of poppy fields would be counterproductive. The permissive NATO mandate to support Afghan drug control operations can still easily draw ISAF troops into this field. This would only further compromise and complicate an already untenable crisis situation. Proposals to just buy up the whole harvest, or incorporate the full Afghan opium production into the licensed licit opiate market for pharmaceutical purposes, face many difficulties.

"It is difficult to imagine how a controlled system could function in Afghanistan," says Kramer. "Doubts remain about how a legal market could co-exist with a continuing illicit market, and how the quantities involved could be absorbed in the global licit opiate market, even though there is a huge growth potential if the chronic underusage of much needed medicinal opiates in most Southern countries could be addressed." Nevertheless, some initial exploratory steps in the direction of using part of Afghan illicit production for legitimate medicinal purposes are well worth consideration.

Drug Control Dogmas

For the sake of Afghanistan's future there is an urgent need for the international drug control community to re-think some of the persistent dogmas that are adding to the pressure on the country to apply repressive strategies to curb production.

"It is an illusion to think that whatever strategy is applied in Afghanistan, that it will 'solve' problems related to heroin addiction in Europe," says Jelsma. "Heroin-related health problems need to be addressed primarily by sensible policies in the consumption markets - not by stepping up eradication in Afghanistan." Overdose deaths and transmission of blood-borne viruses through injecting drug use can be reduced by quality treatment services and harm reduction programmes such as methadone treatment, heroin maintenance, needle/syringe exchange and consumption rooms.


"Intensifying a war on drugs in Afghanistan now would only add further fuel to the conflict, and that is the very last thing that is needed at this point in time," Jelsma concludes. "Instead, drug control objectives have to mainstreamed into the overall peace-building, development and reconstruction efforts, and potential gains and losses have to be weighed against other objectives within an overarching plan." Prioritisation and the right sequencing remain essential.

Forced eradication should not happen where alternative livelihoods are not sufficiently in place or where it is likely to exacerbate conflict. It will take a longer-term effort to reduce Afghan dependence on the opium economy, and its ultimate success will depend on improving the security situation, particularly in southern Afghanistan, bringing about more stable governance and the rule of law, and strengthening the legal economy to provide alternative livelihood options.