I have concluded from my discussions with US officials that they believe that the expansion of the opium economy in southern Afghanistan, and especially in Helmand province, has strengthened the Taliban and that crop eradication would therefore weaken the Taliban by depriving them of funds. I believe that this argument is wrong and that forced eradication in hostile areas will not defund the Taliban or increase security. It will weaken the government and strengthen the insurgency. Eradication is part of a balanced counter-narcotics policy, but gaining control of territory and providing security and starting development come first.
It is wrong to imply, as some US officials do, that the Taliban have become so powerful in Helmand because the GoA failed to implement its CN policy. The Taliban became powerful in Helmand because until 2006 the US put only 150 Special Forces there to catch terrorists and did little to provide security or development to the population. Consequently the government of Afghanistan and aid organizations could not work there. Furthermore, the U.S. ignored warnings about the development of Taliban leadership and infrastructure in Quetta, Pakistan, right across the border, and took at face value the statements of the Government of Pakistan, which, according to Pakistan's Daily Times, are believed by no one in Pakistan itself.
So when the British arrived to lead the NATO deployment to Helmand in 2006, they found that Taliban controlled most of the province, poppy cultivation was expanding because of the lack of government control, and the Taliban were safely ensconced right across the border in Baluchistan. Meanwhile, the U.S. government was focused on Iraq.
Other erroneous talking points on this subject:
- The US and UNODC claim that poppy cultivation is not related to poverty because southern provinces where poppy is grown are richer than northern provinces where it has been reduced. Wrong. First they are using average income to measure poverty, which is highly inaccurate and not the preferred measure. Even using this flawed measurement, official statistics show that the northern provinces of Jawzjan, Balkh, Samangan, and Baghlan are all “richer” than the southern province of Qandahar. All seven northern provinces are richer than the southern provinces of Zabul and Uruzgan. The average income in Helmand is indeed estimated to be greater than in Balkh, amounting to $1 per person per day rather than $0.70 per person per day. A dollar a day, the average income in "rich" Helmand, is the internationally accepted definition of destitution. And within each province, the poorest people are the most dependent on poppy cultivation. In any case, the argument against eradication is not bleeding-heart liberal (or Christian) sympathy for the poor. It is analysis that the net result of forced eradication will be greater insecurity and a stronger insurgency with no negative effect on Taliban operations or financing.
- The US and UNODC claim that the fact that poppy cultivation is concentrated in the south, where the insurgency is, proves that the insurgency grows because of the drug trade. Wrong. Poppy cultivation follows insecurity. Since the Taliban control so much of Helmand,where natural conditions favor poppy cultivation, poppy is grown there. Natural conditions also favor poppy cultivation in Badakhshan and Nangarhar, but because the insurgency is weaker in these provinces, security is better and communities have more alternatives to the drug economy.
- Crop eradication will deprive the Taliban of funds. Wrong. Did the Taliban lack money in 2000-2001, when they decreased opium poppy cultivation by 95%? They continued to tax trafficking of existing stocks. If the government with NATO back-up manages to eradicate in Helmand this year, the first year or two trafficking will continue from stocks. After that, either poppy will be grown elsewhere and trafficked through Helmand, at a higher price, or the government will lose control of Helmand and poppy will come back. Crop eradication does not defund the Taliban.
- The successful capture of Musa Qala district from the Taliban in northern Helmand shows that eradication will defund the Taliban, because the area had been turned into a heroin production center to fund the Taliban. U.S. Ambassador Wood stated that "in Musa Qala Afghan and international forces found a reported $500 million in street value of drugs warehoused in the district." The use of "street value," (i.e. price to the final consumer in Europe) exaggerates the local value of the drugs by a factor of at least 20. In fact the seized narcotics in Musa Qala show that forced eradication is not necessary for tackling the link between insurgency and narcotics. There was no eradication in Musa Qala. A successful political-military operation (negotiation with Taliban leader Abdul Salaam, who came over to the government side, plus the military operation) enabled the government to get control of the area, seize drugs, and destroy heroin labs. This is interdiction, not eradication. If the government had forcibly eradicated the crop, would Mullah Abdul Salaam have come over to the government side? Would the operation have succeeded? Now the government and international agencies can start programs to help people in Musa Qala and ask them to refrain from planting poppy.
- Helmand has received so much money in US aid that if it were a country it would be one of the leading aid recipients. This is the kind of argument that sounds good in Washington and rings false in Afghanistan. What is true is that the U.S. has appropriated and partly spent that amount of money for projects in Helmand. The largest project in Helmand is the Kajaki dam hydro-electric project, which I think is the single biggest project in Afghanistan. Much of the money for Helmand has been spent on equipment and operations for the Kajaki Dam, which is not yet operational, largely because the Taliban managed to entrench themselves around it, thanks to the Bush administration's neglect of Afghanistan. No one in Helmand has yet “received” any benefit from these expenditures, so it is deceptive to claim that they are "recipients" of this amount of aid. The implication that Helmandis are greedily enriching themselves off of US aid and then enriching themselves further with poppy (and then asking the Taliban to come and protect them!) is false. It also inflames regional and ethnic conflict in Afghanistan, which is not helpful.