“For more than two millennia, Afghanistan has been at the crossroads of civilizations and a major contributor to world culture,” declared the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in 2003.  Exactly what Afghanistan has contributed to world culture is not so clear, but the desperately poor, primitive, war-torn state is important in another way.  Over the last quarter-century, Kabul “became a major contributor to world narcotics production,” explained the UNODC.

The United Nations attempted to put a positive spin on Afghanistan’s role as a global Opiates-R-Us: “The establishment of democracy in Afghanistan and the Government’s measures against cultivation, trade and abuse of opium have been crucial steps towards solving the drug problem.”  Like most else emanating from the United Nations, however, the claim is meaningless spin, p.r. cover for a problem that is growing worse, despite the United Nations’ and the United States’ efforts.  Even the UNODC had to admit: “Dismantling the opium economy will be a long and complex process.”

Why is this problem so hard to solve?  The popularity of poppies reflects the fact that drug trafficking is profitable.  The recent upsurge in production is a response to the ouster of the totalitarian Taliban, which once won U.S. aid in its efforts to fight the drug trade.  Although Washington is promoting the illusion that the West can simultaneously eradicate drug production and Islamic fundamentalism, the goals seem incompatible—in which case, the United States has to choose which objective is more important.

Drug production in Afghanistan, as elsewhere, ultimately is more a question of demand than of supply.  Several decades of drug prohibition suggest that economic markets will always defeat government bans.  In Afghanistan, where the average wage is a couple of dollars per day, heroin and opium trafficking produced revenues last year estimated at $2.3 billion—as much as 60 percent of Afghanistan’s official annual GDP.  Opium production has jumped 15 fold since 1979.  As of 2002, Afghanistan accounted for three fourths of the world’s opium supply; last year saw the highest production levels ever.  The United Nations claimed that drugs can be eradicated in Afghanistan “with the instruments of democracy, the rule of law, and development.”  Unfortunately, this has not occurred.

Afghanistan was noted for neither drug abuse nor production until the Soviet invasion in 1979.  By destroying established social institutions and creating widespread economic chaos, the Soviets turned Afghanistan into a model environment for the drug trade.  Villages were bombed, crops were destroyed, livestock was killed, and people were displaced.

Opium became the perfect product in a land where traditional production, distribution, and transportation networks disappeared and social norms loosened.  Legal crops suffered, and exports collapsed.  Opium replaced other agricultural products on the best land, and drug producers employed the abundance of cheap labor—women, children, and returning refugees.

The war had other effects.  Many refugees turned to drugs as a form of escape.  And, according to the UNODC, “The medical use of opiates as analgesics and sedatives in the treatment of wounded combatants and other war victims also contributed to rising levels of addiction.”

Another factor, which Washington long refused to admit, was that America’s mujahideen allies relied on the drug trade for revenue.  Indeed, it “was one of the only commodities which could generate enough income for large scale arms purchases,” reports the UNODC.  During the Cold War, the United States subordinated her war on drugs to her campaign to undermine Soviet power.

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, civil war raged for another decade.  There was no effective central government in Afghanistan and no means by which the West could exert control.  That vacuum helped propel the Taliban to power in 1996.  The fundamentalist Muslim regime banned the use of all intoxicants, including opiates.  However, Kabul had no objection to its people selling drugs to infidels; in fact, some Taliban commanders participated in the trade.  Moreover, the Taliban’s victory was achieved in part by agreeing to allow some warlords to maintain their opium operations.  Production doubled by 1999.

In 2000, Kabul banned the cultivation of opium but not its trade, in an attempt to avoid international sanctions.  Production dropped dramatically in 2001 but then rebounded above the level of 2000, U.S. aid notwithstanding.

Following the Bush administration’s ouster of the Taliban, the new government banned opium production.  The U.S. victory removed the restraints that the Taliban had established, however, and the poppy fields were replanted.  Indeed, chaos along the border with Pakistan made smuggling even easier.  (The opium trade also is rife along the borders with Iran, to Afghanistan’s west, and the Central Asian states to her north.) 

Regime change did not provide Afghan households with a new source of economic support.  And the subsequent influx of foreign aid, which has an extremely poor record of promoting development, could not alleviate the poverty of the mass of Afghans.  Legitimate exports remain a fraction of the levels of two decades ago.

Hamid Karzai rules little more than Kabul—and that only with allied support, which is not enough to suppress scattered Taliban forces, discordant warlords, and opium producers.  In many areas, the traditional power structure remains undisturbed.  Thus, reported Andrea Chang of ABC News last year, “Those profiting from Afghanistan’s post-Taliban heroin market are the same ones that profited during the Taliban reign.”

The United Nations claims to retain hope.  In its 2003 report, The Opium Economy in Afghanistan: An International Problem, the UNODC opined

that the conditions which rendered the state and the government ineffective in Afghanistan do not prevail any longer.  There is, today, a window of opportunity for nation-building and consolidation, created by the collective force of the international community superseding the particularistic interests of foreign powers.

Alas, what the United Nations describes as “important steps . . . towards nation-building” remain unlikely to achieve that worthy end, let alone to eradicate a highly profitable crop from desolate, distant lands.  Indeed, the Kabul government figures that about 30 percent of Afghan families are involved, to some degree, in opium cultivation and production.

Unfortunately, defenestrating a bad regime is not the same as empowering a good one.  President Karzai seems decent and well intentioned; the country’s post-Taliban constitution was adopted by a fairly diverse convention and establishes a reasonably liberal state.  There is widespread international support for fixing one of the worst of the globe’s failed states.

Yet the goal of generating a real state whose writ reaches across the territory known as “Afghanistan” seems to remain as distant as ever.  Elections originally scheduled for June were delayed until September.  The lack of security—with concomitantly slow registration of voters, especially outside of major cities—led to predictions that the poll would be impossible in September.  The constitution offers mere paper guarantees, which have already been violated.

Factional strife abounds among non-Taliban forces.  Rival militias refuse to disarm—including the one belonging to Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim.  Fighting is constant, as resistance from Taliban and Al Qaeda forces expands and intensifies.  Attacks on, and abductions of, foreign-aid workers have been increasing.  Even the deployment of U.S. forces has not quelled vigorous resistance.  American casualties are a constant.  Violence bedevils Kabul itself, despite the presence of a multinational peacekeeping force.  As journalist Seymour Hersh concludes, “[T]he situation there is deteriorating rapidly.”

The “cooperation” of Afghanistan’s neighbors has been no more effective.  Washington’s relations with Iran are nonexistent.  The Central Asian states are more compliant, but their borders with Afghanistan remain porous.

Pakistan routinely announces battles in which she promises to rout Taliban forces and capture Al Qaeda leaders, only to explain afterward that the bad guys slipped away or the captives turned out to be low-level operatives.  Pakistani border police do little to hinder crossborder traffic, since the drug trade profits Pakistanis as well as Afghans.  Financial-crimes expert Jack Blum contends: “An awful lot of the insanity that was going on in Kashmir was financed out of that heroin flow, because the Pakistani secret service was involved in helping support the flow.”

The problem is not just with Kabul and its neighbors, however: It also is in Washington.  Controlling the drug trade is not America’s top priority in Afghanistan.

In fact, Bush-administration officials have argued that fighting the drug trade is primarily the responsibility of the British—who allegedly have bungled the job (having undertaken to compensate Afghan opium producers).  The House narcotics subcommittee actually held hearings entitled: “Afghanistan: are British counter-narcotics efforts going wobbly?”  Yet Washington has little cause for boasting.

Bush administration officials say little on the record, and the Pentagon proclaims that it is unaware of U.S. soldiers coming across drugs during military operations.  No one believes Washington, however.  Western diplomats in Kabul say that U.S. military forces ignore drug trafficking unrelated to enemy forces.  One contended that the soldiers’ attitude is “Hey, it’s not our problem.”

Soldiers in the field affirm that their priority is terrorism.  Sgt. Maj. Harrison Saries, a military spokesman stationed at Bagram, Afghanistan, explained: “We’re not a drug task force.  That’s not part of our mission.”  In Washington, the Department of Defense is more careful to appear to be cooperative.  In congressional testimony, Thomas W. O’Connell, assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, advanced the administration’s $73-million budget request for antinarcotics work in Afghanistan.

Despite this promise to increase emphasis on drug interdiction, the Pentagon’s efforts will inevitably remain limited.  “Our resources are finite,” says Lt. Gen. David Barno, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan.  “Our focus has to remain on security.”  Most of the military’s current antidrug spending in Afghanistan goes for aid, resources, and training for Afghan agencies, including “to help the Ministry of Interior develop a public affairs campaign inside Afghanistan that will emphasize key messages that discourage growing poppy and supporting the narcotics industry.”

It will take a very persuasive message to overcome a drug trade that benefits many outside and even some inside the government.  Mirwais Yasini, Karzai’s narcotics advisor, argues that “the Taliban are heavily involved in drug trafficking.”  Last year, he figures, the drug trade yielded $150 million to the Taliban.  Moreover, analysts point to evidence that the Taliban levies a tax of around 15 percent on drug smugglers.  House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-IL) similarly contends that drug trafficking generates “vast amounts of illicit monies ripe for the taking by al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their terrorist allies.”

By the same token, though, Karzai’s (and the United States’) local warlord allies also gain from the trade.  Many poppy traders “are the guys who helped us liberate this place in 2001,” one U.S. official told the New York Times.  “Without money from drugs, our friendly warlords can’t pay their militias,” opined a Western official in Kabul.  These warlords have enabled the United States to fight the Afghanistan war largely by proxy.  American allies thought to be involved in the drug trade include Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir, assassinated last year, and Gul Agha, governor of Kandahar province.  In this case, there is not much difference between passive toleration and official encouragement.  One NGO official told Seymour Hersh: “Everybody knows that the U.S. military has the drug lords on the payroll.  We’ve put them back in power.  It’s gone so terribly wrong.”

There is much rhetoric about finally tackling the issue.  Robert Charles promises that “We intend to be very aggressive, very proactive,” which includes more than simply cutting off the money.  “If the penalties are high enough, they will not grow heroin poppies.  We need to show the people that we are serious.”  Unfortunately, being “very aggressive, very proactive” does not seem to have worked anywhere else—years of literal war in Colombia, for instance, have done little to dent a drug trade controlled by battling communist guerrillas and right-wing militias.

Moreover, U.S. officials seem distinctly unconcerned about the interests of the many Afghans engaged in poppy farming.  “Our priority should not be some kind of misplaced sympathy for someone who will have to do a bit more work” to grow other crops, Charles told Congress—that is, unless one actually wants to convince them to do the extra work necessary to grow other crops.

Indeed, to the extent that Washington actually does penalize its erstwhile allies, it risks driving them back toward the Taliban.  In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, Washington has been losing support as a result of mistaken military strikes and human-rights abuses.  The United States can ill afford to create more enemies.  For the near future, at least, drug-supported warlords might offer Washington the most effective means of controlling would-be terrorists.

Nor is the return of a measure of stability and prosperity to Afghanistan enough.  The UNODC observes that, “given the current opium prices within Afghanistan, it is also clear that no other crop can compete with opium poppy as a source of income.”  Planting a field with poppies is 10-to-15 times more remunerative than growing wheat; opium farmers have demonstrated against the government for destroying their crops.  “This considerably hampers alternative development interventions, making the establishment of successful interdiction capacities a sine-qua-non for successful alternative development efforts,” admits the UNODC.  In other words, only interdiction will ultimately stop opium production—interdiction in regions run by warlords only loosely allied with the Karzai government; interdiction in areas where the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces are now active; interdiction in border regions of neighboring states that are not under any centralized government control.

How could such interdiction be accomplished?  American forces are already badly stretched.  The United States augmented her Afghan garrison with 2,000 Marines earlier this year, but troop levels in Afghanistan—a bit more than one tenth of the level in Iraq—seem inadequate to suppress Taliban forces and capture Al Qaeda members, let alone to suppress the drug trade.

Moreover, Iraq retains a higher call on personnel.  The Army is using stop-loss orders to hold soldiers in the service beyond their terms and past their planned retirements.  Nor is NATO, now more highly involved in Afghanistan than in Iraq, likely to be of much help.  “Everybody is short of forces now,” complains French parliamentarian Pierre Lellouche.

Representative Hyde has explained that “I do not want our military forces, already tasked with vital counterterrorism and stability operations, to become Afghanistan’s anti-narcotics police.”  That, he says, should be the job of “Afghan police, army, and judicial authorities we are helping to build,” along with the Drug Enforcement Administration.  Yet, writes Afghan expert Barnett Rubin, Kabul “does not have functioning state institutions.  It has no genuine army or effective police.  Its ramshackle provincial administration is barely in contact with, let along obedient to, the central government.”

In particular, Afghan security forces largely remain a gleam in the eyes of Washington nation-builders.  After two years, Kabul has managed to mobilize a force of just 7,000 men out of a planned 70,000-man military.  Hundreds of Afghan military recruits deserted earlier this year to protest their pay and working conditions.  The difficulty in creating an effective Afghan military is illustrated by the fact that Karzai long was guarded by U.S. Special Forces and then foreign contractors, not Afghan soldiers.  William B. Taylor, the State Department coordinator for Afghanistan, predicts that it will take another four years to finish training the Afghan army.  Given past performance, that estimate seems overly optimistic.

Robert B. Charles, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, admitted at a congressional hearing earlier this year that

There is presently no reliable Afghan capability to accurately estimate illegal drug cultivation or to destroy illegal drug crops, and no integrated drug intelligence, investigation, and interdiction capability within the Afghan National Policy.  Drug arrests, seizures, testing, and destruction are haphazard and drugs confiscated by the authorities are sometimes stolen and/or resold.  Trials and incarceration of offenders are beyond current government capabilities.

So how is a government unable to secure its capital city supposed to squelch poppy production in distant provinces?  How is a government whose chief military support against the Taliban comes from drug-producing warlords going to terminate that business?

“In a few short years, with the help of the international community, Afghanistan has gone from being a failed state, ruled by extremists and terrorists, to a free country with a growing economy and an emerging democracy,” said Secretary of State Colin Powell at a recent donors’ conference on Afghanistan.  In Washington’s dreams.

“There is no quick fix,” says Rosalind Marsden, Britain’s ambassador to Afghanistan.  Unfortunately, it is not clear that there is a slow fix, either.  Without doubt, the drug trade makes it more difficult to create stable governance in Kabul and perhaps to defeat Taliban and Al Qaeda forces.  Attempting to suppress the drug trade with more than rhetoric may make those objectives even harder to attain.  Unfortunately, the opium market to the world is likely to remain open for the foreseeable future.