Op-Ed, Wall Street Journal
February 20, 2007
Author: Vanda Felbab-Brown, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program/Program on Intrastate Conflict, 2005–2007
As NATO braces for a spring Taliban offensive in Afghanistan, many in the Bush administration, the Congress and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime are calling for it to take on a prominent role in combating the narcotics trade. Although this task is meant to help Afghanistan repress the worrisome, if predictable, expansion of its opium economy, it will greatly hamper NATO's effectiveness. NATO's crucial role is to establish security throughout the country — and not to dilute its focus in eradication and interdiction missions that are presently bound to fail.
It is not that NATO should simply turn a blind eye to the opium trade. But it should focus on where it can make a difference. Success in counterinsurgency requires the ability to establish a permanent presence in ever-larger sectors and to consistently protect the population from insurgent reprisals, thus winning the minds part of the hearts-and-minds struggle. NATO's troop density in Afghanistan is still far too low to provide such security, despite the extension of duty tours for several thousand U.S. soldiers. Expanding their mission to include drug eradication will only further thin NATO's presence, while jeopardizing its ability to control areas and persuade the population that it can protect them from the Taliban. Without this assurance, the population will at best sit on the fence, and at worse succumb to Taliban pressure.
Even more important, it will cost NATO the loss of the population's hearts. The rural population is critically dependent on the opium economy for a basic livelihood. Without any viable alternatives, destroying the crop greatly antagonizes the population against those who carry it out — local tribal elites, state officials and Kabul.
Drug eradication efforts so far have allowed the Taliban to reintegrate itself into the opium economy and rebuild some of its political capital with the population, by offering itself as a protector of the population and its poppy fields. Meanwhile, the damage to the crops has generated a new wave of economic refugees to Pakistan, many of whom have been replenishing the ranks of the Taliban. There's another critical problem. Reliable, accurate and actionable human intelligence is the key to winning a counterinsurgency campaign. The willingness of the population to provide such intelligence on the Taliban is already minimal, and NATO's direct participation in eradication will halt it altogether.
Yes, the Taliban is profiting financially from the Afghan drug trade (in addition to profiting politically from eradication), but eradication will not cut off financial resources to the Taliban, rendering it physically weak and easy to defeat. The Taliban was able to regroup and rebuild its organization in Pakistan and Afghanistan between 2002 and 2004 without access to large profits from the opium economy, which was at that time dominated by various warlords, many of whom are now government officials at all levels of the Afghan government. It was able to replenish its physical resources by donations from the Middle East and collections in Pakistan, as well as by participating in other smuggling activities. In fact, no belligerent group has been bankrupted by the effort to eradicate drugs. For example, even after years of fumigation and under pressure from the Colombian military, the FARC guerilla group is showing no signs of hurting financially. Eradication will also fail to weaken the Taliban physically; indeed it will only strengthen them politically, while undermining NATO's intelligence acquisition.
Participating in interdiction which focuses on apprehending traffickers and destroying labs is somewhat less problematic for NATO, but even such a mission is not without crucial problems. Steadily expanding in Afghanistan since the 1980s (with the 2000 eradication campaign by the Taliban being temporary and unsustainable), the opium economy deeply underlines much of Afghanistan's political, economic and social life. The traders and traffickers are not alien criminals. Many are members of tribal elites with crucial sway over the population.
Drug interdiction will at the least induce these traders and traffickers to pressure the population to stop cooperating with NATO, if not more directly support the Taliban. This could easily jeopardize as well the reconstruction and economic functions of the provincial reconstruction teams, thus further weakening the minimal efforts at long-term alternative development. Interdiction should be carried out — by special national interdiction units — to eliminate at least some corruption and impunity of the key traffickers, but NATO should stay out of it.
NATO does have an important role to play incounternarcotics — namely, to defeat the insurgency. Without stability throughout the country and security on the ground, counternarcotics measures will not succeed. Alternative livelihood programs will not have a chance to take off. Without stability, even repressive measures, such as eradication, will only lead to cycles of replanting, social strife, and a strengthened insurgency.
Ms. Felbab-Brown is a research fellow at the Brookings Institution.
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