Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Can the Bombing of the Afghan Drug Patch Really Defeat the Taliban?

Posted in Afghanistan/Pakistan/Central Asia by Dan on July 24, 2009
Without American Job-Training, Afghanistan will either slide back into warlordism or Talibanization

Without American Job-Training, Afghans will be forced to choose between warlordism, drug cultivation, or a return to Taliban-rule

In a dramatic escalation for coalition troops in their fight against the Taliban insurgency, the U.S. Military has reportedly “dropped a series of 1,000-pound bombs” on plantations cultivating poppy-seeds: a crop that can easily be converted into opium and heroin.  U.S. Commanders in Southern Afghanistan, a portion of the country that is often overrun by Islamic forces loyal to the Taliban movement, view this new offensive with collective importance.  Washington has consistently claimed that drug production in Afghanistan is used as a major source of funding for the Taliban resistance…not only providing Taliban fighters with an immense amount of wealth, but helping to establish an umbrella of control over ordinary Afghan farmers that would normally view the Islamists with suspicion.  Citing this drug-insurgency relationship, Tom Wayne of the U.S. State Department views the mission as one of the most vital objectives in the military’s counterinsurgency campaign.

Analysts, policymakers, and intelligence officials have all argued for a more active U.S. offensive against illegal poppy production inside Afghanistan.  Commonly pointing to the Taliban as a main instigator of drug production throughout the country, the U.S. Government has continued to hide behind evidence-lacking assumptions with respect to Afghanistan’s drug culture.  In fact, ever since the Taliban regime was routed by the United States in Operation Enduring Freedom, the drug-trade within Afghanistan has risen exponentially.  What many Americans fail to realize is how influential the Taliban actually was in drug-enforcement programs.  In its five-year tenure, members of the Islamic government were highly successful in preventing the cultivation of poppy-related crops…both for religious and moral reasons.  Only in the year 2008 did the production of heroin and opium actually decline to a lower level…although estimates by the United Nations still label the Afghan countryside as the major source of heroin in the world.

Of course, the year 2008 is much different than the year 2001.  The Taliban that was once so adamant in eliminating illegal narcotics are now using these same drugs to fund their insurgency against American troops and against President Hamid Karzai’s administration.  This is precisely why the U.S. Military decided to target drug-invested plantations this past week.  So the reasoning goes, depriving the farming of poppy would severely hurt the Taliban’s ability to extract the money needed to continue their operations.

While seemingly logical, Washington must make sure that the strikes on Afghan farms are quickly followed by an extensive U.S.-effort to help farmers regain their livelihoods.  Many Afghans are simply forced to grow poppy in the hopes that their families and communities will escape from poverty and deprivation.  The fact that the Taliban reaps some of the rewards is only an afterthought to many of these families.  As long as these very same farmers are able to feed, cloth, and shelter their loved ones from the growth of illegal narcotics, the presence of the Taliban is something that can be dealt with.  The assumption that Afghans are coerced and intimidated by the Taliban to grow illegal crops is especially discouraging, for such statements only reflect America’s misunderstanding of the situation on the ground.  With jobs and economic benefits virtually absent outside of Kabul, it is very hard to believe that Afghans living in the surrounding countryside would hesitate in creating the employment needed to survive.  Mr. Karzai’s government, dominated by corruption and mismanagement, is certainly not encouraging these farmers to re-innovate themselves in a lackluster job market.

The United States Agency for International Development claims that over $22 million have been spent in order to redistribute resources to over 250,000 Afghan civilians.  In addition, USAID has argued that the organization is helping farmers and villagers grow more suitable crops for their local communities: either in the forms of training, workshops, or new irrigation methods.

While encouraging, USAID is both understaffed and underfunded to adequately complete this mission.  If the United States Military wishes to drop thousands of pounds of bombs on the lifeblood of so many Afghans, they must be willing to assist USAID with the reconstruction effort.  More appropriately, the U.S. State Department must work with their USAID colleagues in improving the lives of the Afghan population…a vast majority of whom live in rural areas.  With jobs unavailable, and with the economic plight getting worse by the day, failing to go one step further after targeted air-strikes will drastically alienate tens of millions of Afghans…regardless of their tribal or sectarian affiliations.

If Americans currently believe that the mission in Afghanistan is all but lost now, imagine how dismal the chances of success will be if the unemployment rate doubles.  Three options would then be left for Afghanistan: warlord activity, drug-production, or a return to an Islamic-based Taliban regime.  This does not even take into consideration the millions of people that would quickly infiltrate neighboring Iran and Pakistan, for fear of both violence and starvation.

President Barack Obama, a man who is risking his presidential credibility on the conflict in Afghanistan, must begin to take more dramatic steps if he truly wishes to defeat the Taliban insurgency.  $22 million is not nearly enough for such a vital portion of Washington’s new counterinsurgency doctrine.  Unfortunately, if the White House, U.S. Military, the State Department, and the United States Congress are unwilling to doll out the necessary funds for an effective farming program, winning “hearts and minds” will quickly prove impossible.  Although many are weary of a return to Talibanization, 75 percent of Afghanistan’s population may very view Islamic fundamentalism as a better alternative than a weak and ineffectual Hamid Karzai.   Americans would then be characterized as both uncaring and self-interested, brushing aside the developments that really devastate an insurgency.  Such is the failure of America’s eight-year mission in Afghanistan.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from Atia Abawi of CNN and statistics from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency contributed to this blog.

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