NATO and Afghan troops seized drugs worth an estimated $350 million in Afghanistan’s Helmand province on Monday, representing one of the biggest drug busts since the war began. The troops seized an amazing 220 pounds of heroin, 176 pounds of opium, and 26,000 pounds of chemicals which are used to produce drugs.
The massive drug bust raises renewed questions about drug policy in Afghanistan. An estimated 90 percent of the world’s opium supply comes from Afghanistan, and the opium trade is a $3.1 billion dollar per year industry. In fact, poppy cultivation is so widespread in Afghanistan that opium is considered to be legal tender in some parts of the country.
Many of the drug trade’s profits support the Taliban and other insurgent groups financially — the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the drug trade funnels between $100 million and $400 million a year to the Taliban — as well as buttressing them politically. When the United States and the Afghan government crack down on poppy production, it allows the Taliban to position itself as the only protector of poppy farmers’ interests.
The United States, therefore, finds itself in an immensely difficult position: It must find a way to slow the drug trade without alienating the local population which survives on poppy farming. In 2009, the Obama Administration moved away from the Bush Administration’s policy of eradicating poppy fields, citing the fear of driving the local population toward the Taliban as a reason. In place of eradication, the administration began using positive economic sanctions such as committing hundreds of millions of dollars toward developing the cultivation of lucrative legal crops, and building roads to marketplaces to provide alternatives that would allow farmers to abandon poppy production.
Unfortunately, positive sanctions such as these entail huge risks. Pouring more and more money into the problem increases Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government’s reliance on the United States, which is sure to undermine his domestic legitimacy. Furthermore, there is almost no way to guarantee that Afghans do not accept the alternate crops or money and then continue to farm poppies anyway. This problem is especially troublesome considering that many key officials in Karzai’s government — including, reportedly, Karzai’s own brother — have grown rich off of the opium trade.
To mitigate these risks, the United States has blended positive economic sanctions with military solutions, such as Monday’s massive drug raid. Military statecraft also comes with serious risks, however. Aside from the potential loss of American lives, aggressively going after poppy farmers promises to increase support for the Taliban and decrease the legitimacy of the Karzai government, which will be viewed as unable to police the country itself. Both outcomes threaten to undo whatever progress we have made in Afghanistan.
Although Monday’s huge drug bust was a victory for the U.S. and Afghan governments, the mere fact that a factory with $350 million in drugs and drug-making supplies existed under our noses until Monday suggests that the drug trade is still a huge obstacle to peace. The Obama Administration has improved the situation by adopting a more nuanced policy than its predecessors, but there is clearly still much work to do. Containing the Afghan drug trade should be the United States’ number one priority in the country. As long as the drug trade is still pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of the Taliban every year — allowing them to buy guns, ammunition, and the support of the local population — then Afghanistan will never be peaceful and secure.