Stop The Afghan Drug Trade, Stop Terrorism
By Forbes.com | by Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld
Thursday, February 26th, 2009 @ 10:42PM
“The fight against drugs is actually the fight for Afghanistan,” said Afghan President Hamid Karzai when he took office in 2002. Judging by the current situation, Afghanistan is losing. To win, the link between narcotics and terrorism must be severed. That is the necessary condition for a successful strategy to undermine the growing influence of al-Qaida, the Taliban and radical Muslim groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is all about money–more precisely, drug money. The huge revenues from the heroin trade fill the coffers of the terrorists and thwart any attempt to stabilize the region.
Though not traded on any stock exchange, heroin is one of the most valuable commodities in the world today. While a ton of crude oil costs less than $290, a ton of heroin costs $67 million in Europe and between $360 million and $900 million in New York, according to estimates based on recent Drug Enforcement Administration figures. Since its liberation from Taliban rule, Afghanistan’s opium production has gone from 640 tons in 2001 to 8,200 tons in 2007. Afghanistan now supplies over 93% of the global opiate market. “This is a source of income for the warlords and regional factions to pay their soldiers,” warned former Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalili in a May 2005 interview with Reuters. “The terrorists are funding their operations through illicit drug trade, so they are all interlinked.” In 2004, the G-8 designated Britain to lead counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan. Its three-year eradication policy was designed specifically not to alienate the local population. It dictated the crop eradication be done “by hand.”
Moreover, the British entrusted the provincial governors with the eradication process, even though Afghan provincial governors, many of whom are powerful warlords, have been engaged in the drug trade for decades. Not surprisingly, the eradication effort failed miserably. The exponential growth in narcoterrorism in Afghanistan led to a well-entrenched narco-economy, strengthening the power of tribal warlords, the Taliban and al-Qaida. The growing violence led NATO leaders, who met in Budapest in October 2008, to agree to allow their military forces to strike the drug traffickers. However, NATO troops were not ordered to attack; in fact, NATO’s European allies are “averse” to drug eradication programs for fear of alienating the local population and because of the risks associated with such operations.
Though Afghan opium production shrank a little to 7,200 tons in 2008, it still accounts for 97% of the country’s per-capita annual GDP, or $303 of $310. Yet Afghan heroin is worth $3.6 billion to $6.4 billion on the streets of most Western nations. According to the latest report of the International Narcotics Control Board, the Taliban’s income for 2007 from morphine base and heroin production is estimated between $259 million and $518 million, up from just $28 million in 2005. This provides more than enough to fund the most sophisticated weapons, training camps, operational and even public relations funds, and plenty of bribes to local tribes’ chieftains and politicians. While no one expects Afghanistan to become a peaceful, self-sustaining democracy overnight, there is a better solution for stabilizing the country than adding 17,000 American soldiers to the 38,000 already there. Without an effective strategy to turn the situation around, the surge is likely to result in the unnecessary loss of human lives and billions of dollars, while failing to remove the major reason for the instability in the region–the heroin trade.
There is, however, a strategy that could reduce the cost of fighting terrorists and drug traffickers alike, while helping to establish a self-sustaining economy in Afghanistan and defusing the tensions in the region. It would also cut down on the social and economic cost of heroin use in the U.S. The Obama administration should implement an innovative and safe poppy eradication method that previous U.S. governments spent billions of dollars developing. Mycoherbicides are naturally occurring fungi that are used to control such illicit pest plants as the opium poppy and other noxious weeds. Unlike chemical controls now in use, mycoherbicides assail only the targeted plant, rendering its cultivation uneconomical. These fungi continue to live in the soil, preventing the future growth of the opium poppy plant, but are harmless to other crops, to humans and to the environment. On Dec. 29, 2006, then President George W. Bush signed Public Law 109/469, of which Section 1111 requires the Office of National Drug Control Policy to conduct an efficacy study of mycoherbicides’ use on the opium poppy and coca shrub.
Yet the one-year study was never conducted, apparently because the drug czar’s office prefers to use pesticides for eradication. Concluding these studies should become a priority for the Obama administration The use of mycoherbicides in Afghanistan, combined with adequate enforcement by the military, will mitigate the production of heroin and cut off the terrorists’ major money supply. This would free up the $150 to $200 billion now used to fight the drug trade and its byproducts–crime, addiction, diseases, accidents, etc.–in the U.S., and make these funds available to help fight terrorism directly. Implementing this new strategy, while subsidizing the Afghan economy until other crops and industries can replace the illegal heroin trade, which leaves most Afghans poor, seems a better way for America to succeed in fighting terrorism and endemic corruption. It would also free up resources for an array of social and governmental reforms, which should be clearly defined and strictly supervised. With no heroin to fund terrorism and subvert the economies and political systems of Afghanistan and Pakistan, the American agenda could take a huge leap forward. Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld is director of the American Center for Democracy and author of Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed and How to Stop It.