I’ve written quite a bit recently about Afghanistan and the opium issue. There’s definitely a real danger of creating the same situation in Pakistan that we’ve already created in Mexico, with terrorist groups reaping massive profits from an illegal trade that we can’t stop. I’m hoping that this article on newly appointed Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is a sign that our policy is going to finally deal with reality over there:
So here Holbrooke was acknowledging the significance of the corruption issue, somewhat eloquently and candidly, yet he could not say how it might be addressed. As for Karzai’s government being “detached,” he didn’t go there.
Holbrooke is a wonderfully engaging character—an old-school power player. He schmoozes reporters, coming across as intelligent, crafty, and concerned. He is a charmer who knows his stuff. He won’t no-comment a tough question; he will compliment the reporter on posing an insightful query, show he fully understands the issue at hand (which he does), and then explain he can’t answer it—in a manner that can be convincing, not annoying.
But at the end of the briefing, Holbrooke did speak somewhat candidly about a vexing part of the Afghanistan problem: drugs. What to do about the opium flowing out of Afghanistan has always been a knotty element of US policy regarding Afghanistan. How much of a priority should it be? (Simply put, if you attack the the opium trade, warlords and locals get pissed off and join or support the other side.) Asked about the priority of drug fighting in the Afghanistan review, Holbrooke, as he was leaving the briefing, said “We’re going to have to rethink the drug problem.” That was interesting. He went on: “a complete rethink.” He noted that the policymakers who had worked on the Afghanistan review “didn’t come to a firm, final conclusion” on the opium question. “It’s just so damn complicated,” Holbrooke explained. Did that mean that the opium eradication efforts in Afghanistan should be canned? “You can’t eliminate the whole eradication program,” he exclaimed. But that remark did make it seem that he backed an easing up of some sort. “You have to put more emphasis on the agricultural sector,” he added.
I don’t envy Holbrooke at all. He has one of the toughest jobs of anyone Obama has appointed so far. Even if he succeeds at helping to rebuild Afghanistan (an extraordinary feat in itself), he could still end up with a major headache just across the border in Pakistan as a result.
For several years, groups like the Senlis Council have been advocating allowing Afghan farmers to contribute to a legal market for opiate-based medicines. If we do go that route, and it works to keep Afghan farmers from contributing to the black market, it doesn’t mean that the illegal market for heroin will just dry up. It will just move elsewhere. The most logical place for it to move to would be just south of the border. This is the root of why this situation is so complicated. If we succeed, we could still end up creating a situation that becomes far more dangerous to us.
This conundrum is just one more reason that we need to get more serious about the kinds of harm reduction techniques that can reduce the demand for illegal heroin in the first place.