The previous installments were: Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan (First Installment): Defining the Problem; Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan II: The Value Chain, The Corruption Chain; and Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan III: The False Promise of Crop Eradication. I also presented a general memorandum on counter-narcotics strategy: Points on Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan: A Critique and a Proposal.
As argued in the previous installments, the U.S. (which funds most counter-narcotics activity in Afghanistan) has invested a disproportionate amount of resources in the eradication of the opium poppy crop, which contributes only 20 percent of the value of the opiate industry in Afghanistan. The result has been the migration of cultivation, its concentration in insecure areas, an increase in the value of the opium economy, and closer links among farmers, traffickers, corrupt officials, and the Taliban. In the new U.S. Counter Narcotics Strategy, of the five immediate priorities, three are for eradication: make eradication a counter narcotics priority; encourage (i.e. pressure) the Afghan government to set eradication goals, and; encourage (i.e. pressure) the government of Afghanistan to use non–negotiated eradication (mechanical eradication and spraying). The two other goals are improving the fund for rewarding provinces that are “good performers” (with cultivation being the only measure of performance) and an improved public information strategy, an area where this administration has proved itself uniquely inept. While the report contains sections on alternative livelihoods and interdiction, neither is listed among the immediate priorities.
The following policy instruments address higher parts of the value chain:
- Interdiction of the trade, mainly destruction of the product, including raids on opium bazaars, police seizures of drugs found in vehicles or in storage, and destruction of heroin or morphine laboratories. While these actions are carried out by law enforcement institutions, they require more enforcement than law. Once a banned substance is seized, the government can destroy it without additional legal procedure or referral to a court. Needless to say, this is not what always happens. There is a system, varying by region, for how much traffickers must pay the police to recover a portion of their wares. Instead of destroying the captured substance, police sometimes claim they have to transport it to their superiors for “evidence.” What happens to it afterwards is not always well documented. In part because of such problems, NATO is now considering an enhanced role for ISAF in interdiction.
- Arrest of traffickers. The number of such cases is on the rise according to the US report, but such arrests mainly target small traffickers or smugglers. The incapacity and corruption of the Afghan justice system is such that cases rarely lead to fair trial and conviction. Instead arrests lead to detention and bribery for release. Hence the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) is working to compile cases against major traffickers that can be presented for extradition to the U.S. The total number of such cases is 2 or 3 so far and cannot increase quickly enough to make any appreciable impact on the largest sector of the Afghan economy.
- Arrests of corrupt officials: such arrests are rare in the extreme, since the police and courts that are the main object of corruption. I have been told of, without being able to verify, arrests of officials of the National Directorate of Security, the intelligence agency, for accepting bribes from traffickers. Those arrested were reportedly tried through NDS’s internal courts and punished severely. I am not aware of any such prosecutions in the Ministry of the Interior.
- Building institutions for interdiction and law enforcement. Just as foreign donors have supported the formation of the Central Poppy Eradication Force, they have also supported the formation of the Counter-Narcotics Police Force (CNPF) for interdiction and law enforcement, part of the pattern of forming special elite units for tasks of particular importance to foreigners. The US is also supporting the creation of special prosecutors, courts, and prisons for drug offenses. These institutions will be resourced and trained better than the rest of the Afghan justice system.
- Measures against money laundering. These are not mentioned in the public version of the U.S. Counter-Narcotics Strategy, but they are reportedly part of the classified version. A World Bank-UNODC study of money laundering for drug trafficking in Afghanistan estimated (very approximately to say the least) that in 2004-2005 actors in the opium economy imported $1.7 billion into Afghanistan using the informal hawala system of money transfer. The author could not estimate the amount of drug profits transferred out of Afghanistan in the same way, but it is certainly of the same order of magnitude.
- Removal from or prevention of the appointment to senior positions of officials suspected of drug-related corruption. All ministers and senior officials of the government serve at the pleasure of the President and may (in principle if not in practice) be removed from office at his discretion. Hence counter-narcotics policy is closely related to the benchmark in the Afghanistan Compact requiring that “A clear and transparent national appointments mechanism will be established . . . for all senior level appointments to the central government and the judiciary, as well as for provincial governors, chiefs of police, district administrators and provincial heads of security.”
The Strategy proposes programs to meet all of these objectives. It is based on a model of law enforcement, with military backup where necessary, plus development (“alternative livelihoods,” which will be the subject of a subsequent post). It also contains measures for strengthening institutions through funding, equipment, and training. Properly designed, implemented, and sequenced, these are needed components of a counter-narcotics policy. But they cannot succeed without building a state to implement the policies and exercise command and control over the strengthened institutions. Recommending law enforcement where the state is so weak is reminiscent of the economist who offered an elegant solution to the problem of being stranded on a desert island with only canned food: assume the existence of a can opener.
At a meeting on counter-narcotics that I helped to organize, the Deputy Minister of defense of Colombia, Sergio Jaramillo, emphasized that aligning policies to strengthen the credibility of the government was essential to counter-narcotics. The state is a political organization enjoying a degree of legitimacy and sovereignty, not just a set of technical bodies, however well trained, equipped, and funded. The state is but one of several contending authorities in most of Afghanistan, and its reach is particularly weak in areas where opium production is concentrated. The state’s weakness does not result solely or even primarily from a lack of technical capacities, but from a lack of resources and consent to a common institutional framework on the part of the country’s key power holders. The divergent views and interests of these power holders regarding the drug economy and their relative strength compared to the state are the main reasons that the drug economy has continued to grow. Given that the yearly export value of opiates produced in Afghanistan equals a quarter to a third of the country’s estimated licit GDP, participation in the drug economy is not a “deviant” activity that can be suppressed with law enforcement and some incentives to cooperate. It will require either the military defeat of or a political agreement with key power holders. Ending or reducing both the insurgency and the drug economy (which are linked, though not exclusively) requires a political settlement on how Afghanistan is to be ruled and developed, not just the implementation of policies by a state that still barely exists.
Training people in the technical skills required for counter-narcotics (interdiction, prosecution, law enforcement, and development) is necessary, but it is not a substitute for a state whose power holders and decision makers exercise a degree of autonomy from the socially powerful, who in Afghanistan include drug traffickers. As a result, frustrated foreign advisors increasingly press for more control over operations and autonomy from the governmental apparatus, which leaves power-holders the choice of being seen as foreign puppets or of engaging in some form of resistance, whether covert (corruption) or overt (insurgency). Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker observed this first-hand while reporting on a U.S.-supported eradication effort in Uruzgan province. When the Afghan force refused to eradicate a field belonging to a local power holder, the DEA agent accompanying them (Douglas Wankel, a determined and dedicated professional) tried to make counter-narcotics more equitable by forcing the reluctant Afghans to eradicate the field. But even if the field is eradicated, such an operation does not strengthen the authority of the state or prevent future poppy cultivation in any sustainable way.
Hence the problem confronted by the policies labeled as interdiction, law enforcement, or anti-corruption are pieces of the same daunting task: consolidating at least a minimal state structure in the face of enormous resources in the hands of unofficial (and sometimes, but not always, criminal) power holders.
For the foreseeable future, the government and its international supporters will be able to accomplish little in Afghanistan without the support of the de facto power holders. These are local leaders who combine functions as politicians, tribal or ethnic leaders, businessmen, landowners, commanders of armed groups of varying degrees of legality, parliamentarians, and government officials. Many were marginalized under the Taliban regime but returned as the allies of the U.S.-led Coalition and the new government.
The mixture of functions varies among members of this group, as does their political orientation. Most have mastered several rhetorical repertoires for different audiences, and they manifest considerable pragmatism in their actions. These leaders have a healthy respect for the effective use of force, money, and rhetoric. Conversely, nothing more incites their contempt than wasteful and ineffective use of force, money, and rhetoric, which, rightly or wrongly, is what most of them see in the actions of the international community in Afghanistan, especially in counter-narcotics.
Many of them derive much of their resources directly or indirectly from the opiate industry, sometimes without ever actually seeing, handling, or even mentioning the substance in question. An Afghan official once pointed out to me that all Afghan politicians had brothers who were businessmen. Afghan leaders also have half-brothers, stepbrothers, cousins, uncles, and nephews, and so do their (possibly several) wives. During the Taliban period one Afghan leader asked for political asylum for himself and his “family.” When asked how large his family was, he said, “About fifty households.” An average Afghan household has about six members, and those of the wealthy and powerful have more. These extensive, dense, and opaque family networks enable some of the powerful to denounce or oppose the drug economy while simultaneously (and invisibly) benefiting from it.
These leaders, however, are even less committed to narcotics than they are to other allegiances they have made from time to time. They often agree that drugs are harmful and that profiting from the trafficking is not praiseworthy, but they see no alternative way to raise the funds they need to keep up their social and political standing. In several cases, however, members of this group have decided that their interests are served best by banning or preventing poppy growing, and virtually all “successes” in counter-narcotics have been due to their efforts, rather than to the international community’s counter-narcotics programs, which often failed to provide the support that success would have required.
The Taliban’s Emirate in 2001, Nangarhar in 2005, and Balkh in 2006 provide examples of authorities with significant ties to drug traffickers or their protectors who succeeded in suppressing poppy growing for a period of time. These cases illustrate these leaders’ potential and flexibility, but also the limits to their authority. I discussed the case of the Taliban in a previous post. In Nangarhar, the tribal leadership of the Jabbarkhel clan, under heavy pressure from the US, decided to forbid poppy cultivation in 2005. Governor Hajji Din Muhammad promised major development projects, which he was unable to deliver. Instead USAID paid rural Nangarharis $3 a day to dig ditches they did not need. Hence poppy production has rebounded in Nangarhar, especially in remote areas without access to assets or markets and where security is poor.
In 2006 Governor Atta of Balkh, a former regional commander of Jamiat-i Islami, whom other officials had previously accused of involvement in narcotics trafficking, decided to eliminate poppy cultivation. He succeeded (though one of the principal alternative livelihoods turned out to be cannabis sativa). In none of these cases did the authorities touch the traffickers, whose incomes remained stable or rose. In 2005, in fact, Nangarhar traffickers responded to the ban on cultivation by sending their extension and lending agents to other provinces, so that the reduction in Nangarhar was accompanied by the spread of cultivation to new areas. A close relative of Hajji Din Muhammad was recently arrested driving northward through Kabul with a load of heroin.
These powerholders felt insecure in the new power they enjoyed at the start of 2002, as they did not know if the Americans would tolerate their usual mode of operation. The anxiety created by the US intervention manifested itself in a rapid fall of opium prices after the Coalition operation started, as dealers sold off inventories they feared would be destroyed or confiscated. In any case, they hoped to benefit from the promised aid bonanza. As it turned out, there was no aid bonanza, but at least the Americans did not interfere with the drug trade, and prices soon stabilized. Even when some commanders were captured by US troops with vehicles full of heroin, they were let go with a remonstrance.
So far it has worked well for them. The fact that people Afghans believe to be major protectors of and participants in the drug trade still enjoy the apparent respect and support of the international community has undermined the credibility of counter-narcotics policy, which thus far has appeared to punish poor farmers and reward rich traffickers and their political patrons.
State building requires a combination of co-opting or defeating this elite. Some targeted sanctions (removal from office, arrest, exile) against the most recalcitrant of this group are necessary if the effort is to succeed, but such efforts can at most provide pressure for the core task: co-opting as many as possible of this group into the state building and development process. In the long term, social and political change will create different elites as well as the instruments they need to exercise authority.
Whatever scarce enforcement means can be mustered should be concentrated against narcotics trafficking and protection. Intelligence collection should focus on understanding the power relations among drug traffickers and specific power holders. The international community should use this intelligence (which its representatives now often claim to lack) to press for the exclusion of the patrons of traffickers from high office. They need not be arrested or tried; even removing some from office and sending them far from the country would send a clear message.
NATO troops should be authorized to provide needed support to Afghan operations to interdict convoys carrying drugs across the borders and destroy heroin laboratories, while minimizing loss of civilian life. International narcotics police should be embedded with Afghans at border posts and airports. Major traffickers and their protectors, once identified by reliable intelligence, should be subject to travel bans and seizure of assets under sanctions approved by the Security Council, which in December 2006 voted to extend the anti-terrorist sanctions of Resolution 1376 to drug traffickers as well.
But law enforcement cannot defeat an elite consensus. And the elite consensus in Afghanistan right now is that foreigners have offered no credible alternative to the opium economy. Law enforcement works to suppress and control deviant behavior with the consent of the society as a whole, which is expected to cooperate with the law enforcement apparatus by supplying information, testimony, and funding. An activity that constitutes a quarter to a third of the economy, however, is not socially deviant behavior, whatever international agreements may say. While drug trafficking is not honored, people see it as a result of the demand for narcotics from foreign markets, which the developed countries with all their resources are unable to suppress, and an effect of the annihilation of Afghanistan’s former state and economy by decades of war. Counter-narcotics policy has become another risk to be managed by pseudo-compliance and covert (or overt) resistance, above all by maintaining asymmetries in information, which the Afghan elite finds relatively easy to do. The only way to defeat a society’s consensus by force is to wage war against it. But the US and the international community is not in Afghanistan to wage war against the Afghan people. The moment the Afghan people believe that is their goal, we all lose.
One of the leading patrons of trafficking reportedly suggested a way out of this situation. According to one minister, this man, who was at that time governor of a major opium-producing province, suggested that President Karzai negotiate with the major traffickers. He reportedly told the president that he knew who the major traffickers in his province were – not surprising, as they were his business partners. The government could not touch them, as they were too powerful, but these people were not against the government on principle. They might well be interested in discussing a transition to a different economy. Such a transition might provide amnesty for past trafficking while allowing traffickers to invest their money in legal enterprises plus forfeiting some assets to public purposes. The ulama (learned clergy) could be consulted about appropriate forms of restitution.
At present, there is no structure set up to help the major entrepreneurs and power holders in the opiate business in Afghanistan to transition out of the trade. On the contrary, when entrepreneurs grown rich from the trade seek help from aid organizations in creating licit enterprises, they are turned away, told that national laws forbid cooperation or negotiation with drug traffickers. In Helmand, the provincial director of one ministry walked into the USAID-funded Alternative Livelihoods Program compound with $800,000 in cash, offering to share the costs for setting up a wheat mill. USAID overruled local program staff who wanted to accept the offer, on the grounds that it would have constituted negotiation with a trafficker or money laundering. USAID contracts prohibit working with anyone with narcotics history or connections, but the house rented by its major Alternative Livelihoods contractor in Lashkargah was owned by a major drug trafficker, which ensured the staff’s security. Rules could be bent to solve the problems of U.S. contractors, but not those of Afghanistan.
The international community recognizes that after decades of armed conflict in one of the poorest countries of the world, it is not possible to administer justice for all the wrongs that were committed in the past. The process of establishing peace and stability foregoes such justice and seeks, at best, “transitional justice.” Transitional justice may enable a society to confront its past truthfully, perhaps punish a few and make amends with most, while laying the foundation for a system of government and justice that will prevent reversion to armed conflict. Such transitional justice, which has hardly even started in Afghanistan, is difficult enough to administer.
It is no less unrealistic to expect that Afghanistan, whose economy and polity depend more on narcotics than any other state, can move from an illicit to a licit economy without an acknowledged transition, not only for farmers, but also for elites that have sustained their power through the profits of trafficking. Every foreign diplomat in Afghanistan regularly meets people associated with both war crimes and drug trafficking. Those few who have tried to avoid doing so have found it more or less impossible. The only guarantees of clean hands in the past several decades are absence from the country or powerlessness.
A condition for successful negotiations is some leverage. Interdiction aimed at the high end of the value chain plus political measures against traffickers well connected to the state are essential. The government and international community should seek to avoid perverse outcomes by seeking some measure of reparations from those who have accumulated wealth in the trade, such making contributions to the capitalization of rural development banks or micro-credit institutions. Enabling them to bring their funds into the open by investing in financial institutions as well as other programs that produce social good would offer some degree of compensation to those in the society who did not benefit from the drug trade.
There is no more a law enforcement solution to Afghanistan’s narco-polity than there is a military solution to the insurgency. Well-targeted sanctions and enforcement are needed as part of counter-narcotics, just as well targeted military actions are needed as part of counter-insurgency. But a counter-insurgency strategy that targets uncontrolled areas where insurgents hide among the population while providing safe haven to the insurgents’ leaders and financiers would be similar to . . . Pakistan’s policy toward the Taliban. A counter-narcotics policy that replicates that model will achieve similar results.