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12/08/2004

US Counter-Drug Policy in Afghanistan

Last June, Rowan Scarborough of the Washington Times reported that "the Bush administration still cannot decide on a strategy to eliminate this new source of al Qaeda funding more than two years after the Taliban fell." We have since decided on a strategy, but it looks like it is to simply ignore the obstacles highlighted by Scarborough, and just hope for the best. The obstacles:

  • "More than 80 percent of Afghans live in rural areas and a good portion of them live off poppy cultivation, especially in the south around Kandahar."

  • "The warlords [supporting Karzai] skim money off the drug trade as shipments move by donkey or vehicle. The fear is that the warlords would revolt if deprived of the drug money."

  • "Not only would spraying enrage warlords, but it also is likely to harm farmers and their families because the poppies grow near farmhouses."

  • "The U.S.-led coalition is relying on poppy growers as spies for information on movements of Taliban remnants and al Qaeda. Taking down the crop might alienate these sources of information."
At the time, one official said "'there is no easy answer...[t]here's always been proposals to go after the crop' with no agreement on when or how to do it."

On November 15, Bradley Graham of the Washington Post reported that the administration "has devised a...counternarcotics strategy aimed at greater eradication of poppy fields, promotion of alternative crops and prosecution of traffickers." The strategy entails "focusing more intelligence-gathering assets on suspected drug operations," "ferrying Afghan counternarcotics police in U.S. military aircraft," "providing emergency support," "strengthening key border checkpoints with more forces and equipment," "enlist[ing] U.S. troops in extended and specialized training of Afghan police," expanding a British-trained Afghan interdiction force and other Afghan counternarcotics police units, establishing "a special task force of prosecutors and judges to handle drug cases" and "launching of a public awareness campaign to stress to farmers and other Afghans that the drug business poses a serious menace to the country and will not be tolerated." See also Robert B. Charles' on-the-record briefing on Counternarcotics Initiatives for Afghanistan. The DEA is also significantly increasing its involvement. "Drug-enforcement agencies asked Congress for an additional $780 million yesterday to fight the rapidly expanding heroin trade in Afghanistan." [AP] None of these proposals address the problems identified by Scarborough.

Further complicating the picture is confusion surrounding the Pentagon's role in counter-narcotics. Bradley Graham, in his Washington Post piece, reported Doug Feith as saying:
"The key to success there is not turning this into a military mission for the Americans," Douglas J. Feith, the Pentagon's chief policy official, said in an interview. "It's the Afghan government trying to enforce its own laws, and what we're interested in doing is building up their capacity so they could do it."

At the same time, Feith said, U.S. troops, who number about 15,000 in Afghanistan, will "be substantially more involved" in countering the drug trade. "There certainly is a sense this is a problem that we need to address because it could get to the point where it could endanger key goals of ours in Afghanistan," he said.
It is at the insistence of the Pentagon, which "contend[s] that battling the drug trade is primarily a law enforcement problem, not a military one, and must be led by homegrown Afghan forces" that "U.S. forces will be limited to supporting Afghan law enforcement efforts."

The military's opposition to getting involved in the drug problem may be the result of overstretch. The AP reports that the Pentagon intends to "cut its forces in Afghanistan next summer if Taliban militants accept an amnesty." If we are going to reduce operations against the Taliban post-amnesty, some of the obstacles to military involvement in the drug problem should fall away.

 

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