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Coalition Operations and the War on Drugs

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A difference of opinion is developing between American and European approaches to poppy eradication in Afghanistan. Jon Lee Anderson in the New Yorker:

In Uruzgan, the Dutch have advocated a policy of nonconfrontation and the pursuit of development projects. (The Dutch commander, Hans van Griensven, was quoted in the Times in April as telling his officers, “We’re not here to fight the Taliban. We’re here to make the Taliban irrelevant.”) A European official told me that the Dutch had doubts about [eradication leader Doug] Wankel’s mission; they feared that it might be counterproductive, because it was only about destroying poppies and did not include any of the other seven pillars of the national plan. “There was concern that it might crosscut other activities focussed on security and development,” he said.

Wankel was frustrated by the wariness of the Dutch. “Most or all Europeans are opposed to eradication—they’re into winning hearts and minds,” he said. “But it’s our view that it isn’t going to work. There has to be a measured, balanced use of force along with hearts and minds.” He conceded, however, that the Uruzgan operation fell squarely on the use-of-force side of the scale. Later, he told me, aid, seed, and fertilizer would be offered to the farmers around Tirin Kot, but not yet. Other Americans were frankly contemptuous of the Dutch policy, which they regarded as softheaded. The Western official told me, “We don’t have a lot of time here. If we don’t get a handle on this soon, we’ll have a situation where you can’t get rid of it, like we had in Colombia for a while, where the narcos owned part of the government and controlled significant parts of the economy. And we have a lot of evidence of direct links with the Taliban. These problems, and organized crime, too, are being embedded here while they’re talking about ‘alternative development.'”

I’ll try to be as even-handed as I can: The Europeans are utterly correct, the Americans are completely wrong, and the American approach will result in far more pain than necessary in Afghanistan, if not outright defeat. There is nothing intrinsic about poppies that makes their cultivation or their cultivators pro-Taliban; poppy producers seek Taliban protection and give the Taliban aid because of the eradication program.

Doug Wankel is part of the eradication program, the leader of a group of private Dyncorp contractors:

“We’re not able to destroy all the poppy—that’s not the point. What we’re trying to do is lend an element of threat and risk to the farmers’ calculations, so they won’t plant next year,” Wankel said later. “It’s like robbing a bank. If people see there’s more to be had by robbing a bank than by working in one, they’re going to rob it, until they learn there’s a price to pay.”

The price the farmers have to pay:

When we were ready to move on, the farmer said, as if to be polite, “Thank you—but I can’t really thank you, because you haven’t destroyed just my poppies but my wheat, too.” He pointed to where A.T.V.s had driven through a wheat patch. Wankel apologized, then commented that it was only one small section. “But you have also damaged my watermelons,” the farmer insisted, pointing to another part of the field. “Now I will have nothing left.”

Maybe it would have helped if the Americans had explained why they were destroying the Afghan crops, but since the explanation amounts to “We have to destroy your crops because our people like poppies, but can’t be allowed to have them; ain’t freedom great?”, I’m not sure that it would have gone over so well.

The appropriate policy is not crop destruction; that will only push farmers towards the Taliban, and I very much doubt that it will significantly affect opium production. Unless the US is willing to undertake Taliban-style measures for opium eradication, the opium problem isn’t going to go away. Much better to develop an alternative regime that involves the purchase of Afghani produced opium, which would bring farmers into the legitimate economy and give them a reason to fight the Taliban, rather than support it. In addition to being a colossal waste of money and a justification for having the highest incarceration rates in the world, the pursuit of the War on Drugs is going to result in the loss of Afghanistan.

See also Danger Room.

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