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The Opium Threat in Afghanistan

The warlords we relied on to stabilize Afghanistan have exploited their authority to establish criminal fiefdoms.

"Local leaders" backed by small personal armies are involved in drug-running, extortion and thievery. Yet the central government and the US military still relies on them for security...

The export value of the opium will reach $2.8bn this year, or 60% of [Afghanistan's] GDP, according to the UN. Once confined to a handful of areas, opium is now cultivated in most provinces. A greater proportion of the harvest is being processed into heroin inside the country, boosting profits further.[Guardian 12/7/04]
Despite Karzai's inauguration [see also Al Jazeera], the country is still on the wrong side of the hill, and at risk of slipping backwards. It is reassuring that Karzai seems to be embracing pluralism, trying to get moderate Taliban fighters to lay down their weapons (under amnesty) and participate in the parliamentary elections. Karzai's impending summit (this weekend) on the opium problem is a good sign, as is his promise to "use his five-year term as Afghanistan's first elected president to crack down on warlords and the re-emerging country's booming drug economy." He even appears to be taking Human Rights Watch's advice, delaying the announcement of his cabinet for weeks, and promising to nominate based on merit:
Karzai had been expected to name his Cabinet immediately after his inauguration, but a spokesman said Monday night that wouldn't happen.

Karzai repeatedly said during his presidential campaign that he wanted to choose members of his government on merit, not through negotiations with warlords, who still dominate parts of Afghanistan. [LAT]
Less reassuring are the continuing violence and the threats that necessitated high security at the inauguration. And the opium problem is still growing, with no solution in sight (industrial hemp aside). All the policies on the table are directed at farmers, but farmers don't have the biggest stake in the trade: "farmers were not the people who were realizing the highest profits. 'The money is going to traffickers, warlords, corrupt officials and terrorists,' [Vincent McClean, New York Representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] said." Helping farmers without challenging the traffickers and lords that enforce and profit from the trade is a recipe for failure.

And the stakes are high. Two weeks ago Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said: "We all salute President [Hamid] Karzai for his courage and determination...Yet, opium cultivation, which has spread like wildfire throughout the country, could ultimately incinerate everything -democracy, reconstruction and stability." "It would be an historical error to abandon Afghanistan to opium, right after we reclaimed it from the Taliban and al-Qaida," said Maria Costa, also calling the resurgent opium trade "a clear and present danger." Conservative Illinois Republican Mark Steven Kirk yesterday told the Washington Times that Osama bin Laden was living off heroin profits. Afghan drug profits and problems pay no heed to borders.

There is some British happy talk:
Bill Rammell, Foreign Office minister, said a "robust" anti-drugs strategy, which the Afghan government would announce this week, would dent the coming crop. "Once we see the [United Nations opium] report for next year we will see that we have begun to turn the tide," he told reporters during a visit to Kabul. [FT]
See also Reuters. Unfortunately, it seems to be completely out of touch with reality.

Update, 12/8/04, 12:51 AM EST: For more, see Robert Scheer's Nov. 23 LAT op-ed; Washington Post Nov. 27 Editorial; the BBC journal from May/June; and Michhle Alliot-Marie, Afghanistan's Drug Boom, WP 10/6/04. For an explanation of the fascinating methodology underlying the UN's analysis of the drug problem, see Brendan Koerner's Nov. 19 Slate article.


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