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Afghanistan: Errors of Judgment

The blogs are all atwitter with news of the “U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan” (PDF), which lays out in detail how the U.S. government plans to eliminate the still-growing presence of opium in Afghanistan.

In particular, many libertarians are aghast at the idea of a forced eradication campaign. In Reason magazine's blog, Jacob Sullum, a longtime legalization advocate, argues:

But if cracking down on opium production in some Afghan provinces simply shifts it to others, wouldn't cracking down on opium production throughout Afghanistan simply shift it to other countries? It's not like that sort of thing has never happened before. A decade ago, by the way, Costa's predecessor, Pino Arlacchi, explained that “global coca leaf and opium poppy acreage totals an area less than half the size of Puerto Rico,” so “there is no reason it cannot be eliminated.”

Over the long term, if history is any guide, these grandiose anti-drug efforts will have no lasting impact on heroin consumption. Over the short term, as I noted in a column on the subject last year, they are strengthening the Taliban and their terrorist allies.

Poppy cultivation, by Flickr user deckwalker

Indeed, it isn't at all outrageous to think that an eradication campaign will simply funnel more money to the Taliban, nor that legalization may yield some foreign policy benefits for the West, as Daniel Drezner puts it. The problem, as I have argued before, is that within Afghanistan legalization simply is not feasible:

From an economics perspective, if the goal is ultimately to starve the Taliban “middlemen” of money, then simply buying up raw poppies won’t do much. There are several aspects to consider: the regulatory environment, the opium market, and Europe’s drug policies.

Most practically: Afghanistan does not have the capacity to tax and regulate much, and especially not a highly profitable illegal drug. The central government can’t get a handle on regular, legitimate agriculture, to say nothing of a crop with the criminal and terrorist baggage poppy has. The government itself is hopelessly corrupt, with many governors already receiving kickbacks and bribes from the poppy gangs; how this would change (if it would change) under an American-imposed regulatory environment is anyone’s guess—but I’d be surprised if it’s good. There is too little oversight and too many opportunities to game the system and keep the smugglers well-fed.

Noted scholar Barnett Rubin has weighed in on this topic as well, in a trilogy of excellent posts at his new blog. In the first entry, he explores what this new American initiative will do:

Implementation of this strategy will lead to a rapid deterioration of security at least in the south of the country and the further weakening of the Afghan government. Afghans will conclude (if they have not so concluded already) that the U.S. does not consider Afghanistan to be sovereign and that the foreigners are in Afghanistan to pursue their own agenda, not to help Afghanistan. Significant portions of the countryside that have been neutral or pro-government will move toward the Taliban…

The basis for these generalizations is that poppy cultivation spread into Afghanistan mainly through the Pashtun areas and that in the last year poppy cultivation has decreased in the mainly northern provinces (see the UNODC Rapid Assessment Survey map)…

But most importantly, the map shows only the flowers. The U.S. Strategy nowhere claims, discusses, or even mentions whether “drug money” has decreased in northern Afghanistan. It has not…Some of the same officials who today get credit for counter-narcotics efforts are generally believed to have become millionaires directly or indirectly from drug trafficking.

After discussing how addressing drugs at different points along the value chain yield varying levels of success in terms of reduction of both supply and price, Rubin then offers a series of recommendations, the conclusion of which is:

Introducing enhanced eradication simultaneously with interdiction and alternative livelihood efforts will lead to a decrease in security and strengthen anti-government forces, while rendering interdiction and alternative livelihoods more difficult…The state in Afghanistan can be built only by using the limited force available in a highly targeted and economical way against hard core opponents, while greatly expanding the incentives (where international actors should have a decisive advantage) to win people over to the side of the government and its international supporters.

This matches closely with other recommendations about the “best” course of action for ultimately fixing the country. One of the main concerns is of course security. Tom Perriello explores this and concludes:

But the toxic combination of corruption, incompetence, and complicity (at least) with warlords and organized criminal networks is creating a fissure between the people and the government within which the insurgency grows.

Indeed, the security situation seems unhelped by Western forces. Though a running feature of Afghanistan since the current wave of war began (Abu Muqawama recently recounted the very poor judgment that allowed Osama bin Laden to escape capture through Tora Bora), the security situation seems to be reaching something of a critical juncture. Péter Marton has been exploring the role of the Dutch in Uruzgan and has this to say:

The other, the second issue I wanted to bring up, is that of whether the June and July car bombings (in Tarin Kowt and in Deh Rawod, respectively) in Uruzgan have eventually resulted in Dutch troops staying back more at their bases as a result, as one Dutch daily, the conservative De Telegraaf once reported at the time. I have mentioned that report with a question mark here, and so that question mark leaves me with some responsibility to return to the subject. Well, I haven't found signs of such staying back recently, in fact I have only found signs of the opposite.

One very obvious sign from near Deh Rawod: a Dutch soldier was killed on Sunday by an IED on a counter-IED patrol north of Deh Rawod. This happened near a place called Chutu (a river crossing), according to a map on the Uruzgan Weblog. Chutu is not far from Keshay, and this is what happened towards the end of July around Keshay: a large clash between the ANA and insurgents (you can also read about it here, and learn that one Afghan soldier was killed in that clash). It's definitely not an area that you would venture into on a counter-IED mission, if you were looking for absolute security.

He goes to detail some other examples of the Dutch engaging in much more fighting that they once did. It makes for an interesting contrast with military journalist David Axe's criticisms of the Dutch—he flat out calls them cowards. Cowardice doesn't seem a given, however, since a few Americans who have fought alongside the Dutch don't believe them to be holding back much.

I have my own problems with how the West has been fighting in Afghanistan, namely the over-reliance upon air power:

This goes back to the layers of media attention lavished on Barrack Obama’s comment about civilian casualties as the result of poorly-planned air strikes—a comment that was by and large correct. The U.S. military’s belief that it can make up low troop levels with precision weapons has thankfully passed under the bridge, at least to a large degree. This is because air power is not very precise, and it is not limited—especially when you have small numbers of militants hiding in a village of mud huts. A 3-meter CEP (Circular Error Probable, which is a radius in which a weapon will land 50% of the time) is useless when even mild blast effects can rip apart mud huts and kill innocents. That is why, despite downgrading its standard munition to 500 lbs, NATO will still kill far too many civilians with such a light footprint. Over-investing in air power, and pretending that can make up for a troop shortfall, is sheer folly.

Indeed, the most precise weapon is the individual soldier, not an aircraft.

Unfortunately, no one seems to have any ideas of what could realistically change course. Domestic political concerns, and not the interests of Afghanistan itself, are dictating the West's counternarcotics policy; similarly, the manpower and money shortfalls caused by the Iraq War are dictating the American commitment, and other domestic concerns are similarly constricting European choices.

The one question no one in the West seems to be asking themselves when it comes to Afghanistan is: what is best for the Afghans? What will most improve their lot? Alas, until these questions are asked at the highest levels of government, more and more errors of judgment will take place, each time lowering confidence in the West's ability to conduct itself in a constructive manner.


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