Thursday, February 26, 2009

Fight Terrorists, Not Farmers

The United States military went into Afghanistan in 2001 to fight Al Qaeda, the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, and their Taliban patrons. Somewhere along the way, someone decided that pressuring farmers to abandon poppy cultivation and even eradicating their crops was essential to that mission. This intermingling of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror is a clear case of mission creep, and it is antithetical to America's war aims in Afghanistan.

Antagonizing Afghan poppy farmers goes against everything we read in FM 3-24. Many former poppy farmers have taken up arms against the United States and the Kabul government as a result of these efforts. Strong arming farmers is not the way to win Afghan hearts and minds.

It also seems fairly clear that efforts to eliminate poppy production there will ultimately be futile. The decades-old U.S. War on Drugs has proven time and time again that the problems of drugs, addiction, and the drug trade cannot be solved on the supply side. Only the draconian Taliban has succeeded in limiting poppy production in Afghanistan--theirs is not a model that the U.S. and its allies want to follow.

However, it is clear that the current poppy production in Afghanistan is a serious problem. Most importantly, proceeds from illicit poppy sales are going to fund the insurgency there. Poppy revenues are also exacerbating the already enormous level of graft in Kabul. Even President Karzai's brother has gotten in on the action.

Replacement crops, such as pomegranates, sound good in theory, but still involve coercing farmers into abandoning their crops which, again, runs counter to the COIN precepts we've read about. Furthermore, while farmers can currently make more money from pomegranates than poppies, producing fruit from an orchard is a more time and labor intensive process than poppy production. Lastly, I would predict that the current pomegranate craze (related to the fruit's purported health benefits), like most such food crazes, will be nothing more than a passing fad. History has taught us that the demand for poppies is decidedly not a fad.

And it is important to remember that poppies do have legitimate uses. According to the International Council on Security and Development think tank, the world is currently facing a shortage of the important poppy-based painkillers morphine and codeine. They have launched a program called "Poppy For Medicine" that would involve production of these vital medicines--from plant to pill--at the village level. This would ensure a stable of flow of money into the Afghan countryside and eliminate the need to push farmers around and into the hands of the insurgency. It would require, though, legalizing and regulating poppies--something "drug warriors" the world over seem to find icky.

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