Obama and the Afghan narco-state

By Bernd Debusmann
January 29, 2009

Bernd Debusmann - Great Debate– Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

To understand why the war in Afghanistan, now in its eighth year, is not going well for the United States and its NATO allies, take a look at two statistics.

One is Afghanistan’s ranking on an international index measuring corruption: 176 out of 180 countries. (Somalia is 180th). The other is Afghanistan’s position as the world’s Number 1 producer of illicit opium, the raw material for heroin.

The two statistics are inextricably linked and, a year ago, prompted Richard Holbrooke, the man President Barack Obama has just picked as special envoy for Afghanistan, to write: “Breaking the narco-state in Afghanistan is essential or all else will fail.”

Holbrooke, who was not in government service at the time, took particular issue with the counter-narcotics strategy the Bush administration pursued in Afghanistan.

“The … program, which costs around $1 billion a year, may be the single most ineffective policy in the history of American foreign policy,” he wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post. “It’s not just a waste of money. It actually strengthens the Taliban and al Qaeda, as well as criminal elements within Afghanistan.”

Exactly what the Obama administration intends to do about that, and how it might break the narco-state, has yet to be articulated. Sending more troops to fight a growing insurgency does not necessarily translate into progress towards dismantling the “narco-state,” eliminating corruption or cutting down on the opium production whose proceeds help finance the Taliban.


The counter-narcotics strategy Holbrooke criticized so harshly centers on the eradication of drug crops, and has been the main weapon in the “war on drugs” the United States has been waging for decades around the world. That war failed to curb the production of illicit drugs and often proved counter-productive.

In Bolivia, for example, Evo Morales, a left-wing opponent of the United States, rose to political prominence and finally the presidency because he rallied a protest movement against U.S.-sponsored attempts to wipe out the cultivation of coca leaf, the raw material for cocaine.

De-emphasizing eradication in Afghanistan would amount to an implicit admission of the failure of policies pursued since the 1970s by both Democratic and Republican administrations.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates, addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee this week, described Afghanistan as “our greatest military challenge right now” but said there could be no purely military solution — not even with the additional 30,000 troops Obama plans to dispatch over the next 18 months.

So if there’s no purely military solution, what are the chances of progress on the political front? An unnamed White House official sounded hopeful this week that the United States could push Afghan President Hamid Karzai into extending government control beyond the capital and stepping up the fight against corruption.

It is the same Karzai who declared jihad (holy war) on the drugs trade in 2004, a few days after he was sworn in as Afghanistan’s first democratically elected leader. That holy war made no dent in opium production and corruption blossomed.

“Karzai was playing us like a fiddle,” Thomas Schweich, a former top anti-narcotics official in Afghanistan, wrote in the New York Times last summer. “The U.S. would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure improvement; the U.S. and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai’s friends would get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term.”


In other words, Karzai is not part of the solution, he’s part of the problem. As to solutions: One novel idea on opium-and-corruption comes from James Nathan, a political science professor at Auburn University in Alabama and former State Department official. He argues in a forthcoming paper that the most efficient way to tackle the problem would be for the United States or NATO to buy up the entire Afghan opium crop.

“Purchasing the whole crop would take it away from the traffickers without cutting more than half the economy of Afghanistan,” Nathan said in an interview. “Such a purchase would directly confront Afghanistan’s most corrosive corruption. It would end the Taliban’s money stream.”

And the cost? By Nathan’s reckoning, between $2 billion and $2.5 billion a year, no pocket change but not a large sum compared with the around $200 billion the U.S. taxpayer has already paid for the war in Afghanistan. The idea may sound startling but its logic is not far from the farm subsidies paid to U.S. and European farmers.

On a more modest scale than Nathan’s buy-it-all idea, a European think tank, the International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), is lobbying for an alternative to traditional counter-narcotics policies dubbed Poppy for Medicine.

That involves granting international licenses to poppy farmers in Afghan villages, where the crop would be turned into opiate-based medicines such as morphine or codeine, and then shipped out to the legal market.

It would place Afghanistan alongside Turkey (where the United States helped to introduce a similar program in 1974), India and Australia as legal producers of opium. Could it work? When ICOS, formerly known as the Senlis Council, first came up with the idea, the State Department cold-shouldered it.

But that was before Obama, who promised to listen to new approaches. Both the buy-it-all and the licensing concepts deserve a hearing.

For previous columns by Bernd Debusmann, click here.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Yes, the best way to curb opium cultivation gains for Afganistan is to make the American and Europeon peoples aware of the ills of its use so that they can stop paying lucrative price for its end use. It will also help if the repression by law etc. on the use of drugs is removed from the minds of the Western people.

wrong, East India trading Co.
Rush L- drug addict
big pharma- makes synthetic heroine
fashion always beats function, e.g.
when was the last time you had a rational conversation with a teenager? They see and hear drug use in their culture, they want to experience it.
To make such changes you have to change urban culture.
Make sobriety cool?
Make drugs legal, no disinfo for teens to prove wrong.

Posted by B.I.B.L.E. | Report as abusive

I am for the carrot and stick method.

First reward farmers by guaranteeing crop prices/sales of non-rug related crops. That’s the carrot part.

For those who don’t get the message the US should spray the farmer’s fields with Bamboo and Bermuda Grass seeds. Let the farmers deal with those crops for a while.

Third pillar is to remove the corrupt Afghan president & government. They only profit from other people’s misery.

Posted by Eric | Report as abusive

Why are you people soo blinkered when it comes to US and British policy.

Any idiot can see that the reason for this occupation has little to do with the Taleban and everything to do with Poppy production.

EVERY Hospital, Surgical institute, Army in the world requres Morphine and codeine for surgery, pain releif etc etc, which obviously cannot be produced without Poppies.

The growth in production has spirraled since the occupation. Is this just coincidence? Look it up FACTS

Capatalism is your answer to everything, if we cant get a good rate we’ll take thats the US’s attitude. And then to blatently lie and feed your public with propoganda. It boggles the mind some of the comments and this writer are soo far off the mark!!

And as for F Daruwala keep your Indian conspiracies to yourself… realy doesnt help

I think this is a great start. Afganistan has little good earth and to tell them to eradicate the only cash crop the country has…………….is ………..so presumptious.

Have the policy makers of legalising drug use and developing a practice like alcohol usage. Imagine the savings in justice administration, law enforcement, courts, correctional personnel, etc. The drug dealers and drug cartels would just run out of business. Controlled usage of drugs would become a profitable business for governments at all levels.
The policy of criminalising drug usage has been in place for so many years it is a futile enterprise.

Posted by justin Ciale | Report as abusive

What needs to be done is for the UN or whoever to purchase the entire crop and make it into pain pills which are in short supply in many countries. Two problems solved at once! But they’ll probably continue to burn it and anger the locals of the land they are occupying.

Posted by Concerned | Report as abusive

Recreational drugs are expensive/valuable (depending on which side of the transaction you view them from) because of the risk premium imposed by prohibition. By repealing prohibition, you can:

-Dramatically knock down the demand for raw materials (poppies), since the full crop will be able to reach end users without interception/eradication at various points in the supply chain, thus causing a price collapse and driving cultivation away from poppies to other cash crops.
-Remove the corrupting influence of the trade, since there will be no incentive for farmers to bribe officials as their actions are no longer illegal.
-Open a pathway to a new domestic government revenue stream by taxing the end product, thus shifting a large fraction of the profits from recreational drugs away from al Qaeda and towards the U.S. Federal balance sheet.
-Save lives of American recreational drug users by:
–Regulating the quality of the product.
–Remove the incentives for violence surrounding the current recreational drug system.
–Lift the risk that other users bear in bringing an injured/overdosing friend to the ER, since they will no longer have to weigh the risk of being arrested with the risk their friend will die.

Posted by Sketch | Report as abusive

To take a cynical view – the only task here is to hurt the Taliban.
1. If we pay more for opium than the Taliban does, farmers will want to come to us, not them. Funding denied.

2. If the Taliban sees these farmers selling to us, not them, the farmers will be targeted. (Sorry, farmers. Poppy-growing is dangerous work.)

3. If the poppy farmers are targeted, we know where the Taliban will strike – taking control of the fight. (Hey, I SAID this was cynical…)

4. We also get a big supply of raw opium which can be used sold to Big Pharma for medicine. The rest gets burned.

Will poppies crop up in other countries? Undoubtedly. They always have and likely always will. Not our (current) problem. Our current problem is to weaken the Taliban to the extent that we can provide a basic framework for functioning government, nab a few Qaeda baddies…and then get the hell out.

Posted by Cazart | Report as abusive

It could be possible that drug demand along with crime will rise in hard times. Don’t know the stats on that but it’s obvious that Karzai (who is an X-oil company man) knows well how to wheel and deal and was placed there by the Bush cartel for a reason. Could it be that Narco dollars from the opium sales help to hold up the U.S. economy and help to fund the CIA’s special ops? I think the notion that only the Taliban profits from it is weak at best, certainly since they prefer to ban everything not in their control.

I believe a large portion of the opium crop is in fact, made into pain pills in india, at generic pharma companies. a backdoor off the books operation that cuts the shareholders out of the revenues, while allowing them to shoulder the costs. now thats effecient management!!

Posted by delacroix | Report as abusive

I believe an “International Entity” should be established were most countries of the world would be members. Said entity’s goal should be dismantlement of illegal drugs’ networks. Instead of fighting it alone, better fight it together. After all, we’ve become a One World.

Only then finance resources shall always be available and on-going. Besides of course the benefit of sharing knowledge.

It should be the task of an international organization like the U.N.

Posted by A. Hussaini | Report as abusive

Please, please, please

The only truly effective method to curb this problem is to legalize these narcotics. Legalize, tax and regulate. The only reason that such drugs are illegal is because, at some point in time, people in a position of authority decided that they were immoral. There is nothing immoral about using narcotics, but there is a lot of immorality in refusing to allow people to grow a crop that puts money in their pockets and food on their table.

There is plenty of evidence to show that their is no downside to legalizing narcotics, and plenty of upside to it.

Posted by dave | Report as abusive

To Dave, who said:Please, please, please

The only truly effective method to curb this problem is to legalize these narcotics. Legalize, tax and regulate. The only reason that such drugs are illegal is because, at some point in time, people in a position of authority decided that they were immoral. There is nothing immoral about using narcotics, but there is a lot of immorality in refusing to allow people to grow a crop that puts money in their pockets and food on their table.

There is plenty of evidence to show that their is no downside to legalizing narcotics, and plenty of upside to it.
No, that is a terrible idea. Legalizing pot may have a chance in hell of being adopted(I doubt it). But legalizing heroin,cocaine,PCP, or other highly dangerous and addictive drugs is ridiculous. It is a drain on society, what would happen if 2/3 of all people did drugs and just laid around all day high? Not to mention the healthcare costs to treat the enormous number of new OD’s. Society would collapse, not to mention our economy.

Posted by JW | Report as abusive