Ending Afghanistan’s drug fix

A few weeks ago, Charlie suggested that Afghanistan’s opium economy might benefit from skyrocketing food prices. 

But the trajectory is unlikely to change, as farmers choose to grow opium for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they grow because they have to repay opium-denominated debt. Sometimes the transaction costs of growing non-opium crops are too high.  These include bribes to be paid to Afghan policemen on the way to market. Finally – and while I am no expert on this – high energy prices (one of the causes of rising food prices) also increases the cost of growing non-opium crops i.e gasolin to take products to market and to make fertilizer etc.

In this piece, I try to lay out a way forward for the Afghan government. In short:

First, the international community must forego the idea that it can sequence coercive and development activities; it is simply not possible given the conditions now and in the foreseeable future.

Second, the international community needs to take aerial eradication off the table and make clear that traffickers, not farmers, are the problem. 

Instead, the government should focus on rolling out the Afghan state, prioritizing the provision of security to local farmers. The international community, in turn, should focus on building local capacity to maintain security and deliver basic services and tackle the corrupt Afghan National Police. Such an approach will allow the gradual introduction of basic services and access to licit sources of income.

A “stability-first” policy needs to be coupled with arrests and the prosecution of drug lords and their backers in government. Unless these “narcotics entrepreneurs” are targeted, arrested and prosecuted, little will change. A special UN-backed narcotics court should be set up to do this.

Narcotics threatens to negate all of Afghanistan’s (dwindling) post-2001 achievements and a new policy is clearly needed. But will the international community act?