Richard Holbrooke, former ambassador to the United Nations, continues his strong criticism of the Bush Administration’s approach to dealing with Afghanistan’s opium problem:
“I’m a spray man myself,” President Bush told government leaders and American counter-narcotics officials during his 2006 trip to Afghanistan. He said it again when President Hamid Karzai visited Camp David in August. Bush meant, of course, that he favors aerial eradication of poppy fields in Afghanistan, which supplies over 90 percent of the world’s heroin. His remarks — which, despite their flippant nature, were definitely not meant as a joke — are part of the story behind the spectacularly unsuccessful U.S. counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan. Karzai and much of the international community in Kabul have warned Bush that aerial spraying would create a backlash against the government and the Americans, and serve as a recruitment device for the Taliban while doing nothing to reduce the drug trade. This is no side issue: If the program continues to fail, success in Afghanistan will be impossible.
The opium issue in Afghanistan has often been treated as a side issue, and Holbrooke deserves credit for strongly challenging that perspective. The way we’re dealing with the opium production is as central to the difficulties we’re having as anything else commonly cited for why we’re losing ground to the Taliban (targeting civilians in airstrikes, being distracted by the Iraq occupation).
Fortunately, Bush has not been able to convince other nations or Karzai that aerial spraying should be conducted, although he is vigorously supported by the American ambassador, William Wood, who was an enthusiastic proponent of aerial spraying in his previous assignment, in Colombia. Wood, often called “Chemical Bill” in Kabul, has even threatened senior Afghan officials with cuts in reconstruction funds if his policies are not carried out, according to two sources.
Aerial spraying in Colombia (under the plan initiated by Bill Clinton in 2000 and continued by the Bush Administration) has been a complete disaster. It has failed to achieve any of its intended objectives and has caused a significant amount of damage to America’s reputation in that region because aerial spraying has a number of additional consequences that affect far more than just those who grow the prohibited crops. In Afghanistan, unleashing a similar disaster would strengthen the Taliban at an even greater rate than what’s happening today.
The current approach of manual eradication, favored by the British and by the Karzai government, is only slightly less counterproductive. The Taliban provide security for the opium traffickers against the government’s eradication teams for a fee (often paid with weapons). In other words, it’s not the profits from the opium trade by itself that enrich the Taliban. It’s the need for protection from the government’s eradication teams that enriches them. If Chemical Bill and the Spray Man get their way, the need for protection will increase and the Taliban will get paid by the traffickers to shoot down low-flying aircraft (aerial eradication of crops has to be done from a very low altitude). It simply has no chance of working in such a poor security environment.
In a nation where roughly 50 percent of the national economy comes from the opium industry, there’s simply no way to uproot it, either by going after the farmers, the traffickers, or the high-ranking government officials who profit from it (including Hamid Karzai’s brother). As much as it may strike people as being irresponsible, simply doing nothing about the opium farming would actually be better than what we do now. Holbrooke doesn’t hold back in his assessment:
But even without aerial eradication, the program, which costs around $1 billion a year, may be the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy. It’s not just a waste of money. It actually strengthens the Taliban and al-Qaeda, as well as criminal elements within Afghanistan.
According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, the area under opium cultivation increased to 193,000 hectares in 2007 from 165,000 in 2006. The harvest also grew, to 8,200 tons from 6,100. Could any program be more unsuccessful?
Well, the one favored by Chemical Bill and the Spray Man would be. But otherwise, thank god we still have people like Holbrooke who are speaking up about this.