The case for (continuing) counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan

There’s a bit of a debate currently about whether the Coalition in Afghanistan should continue to invest in counter-narcotics work in the country. The problem – as articulated by people on the ground is that much of the work has failed. Opium production is up, American troops are no longer allowed to set foot in poppy fields let alone burn them and in a year’s time drugs won’t be high on the Afghan Government’s to do list – if it’s on it at all.  What we do next matters because it is liable to have an impact in the UK… below is a short piece I did for RUSI.

Afghanistan produces roughly 90 per cent of the world’s illicit opium. According to a recent UNODC report, three times as much opium was produced in Helmand in 2012 than in 2006. The 2013 Opium Risk Assessment for the southern, eastern, western and central regions of Afghanistan highlights further concerns. Poppy cultivation is expected to expand into new areas where poppy cultivation was disrupted. This is particularly the case in less developed areas, where farmers are planting poppy seeds in the wake of the departing coalition forces. Areas that have been poppy-free for years risk resuming poppy cultivation.

The former British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has stated that the drugs trade was one of the factors in his decision to intervene in Afghanistan in 2001, as it was part of the Taliban regime that ‘we should seek to destroy’. Twelve years on, the drugs trade continues to undermine the security of the country and wider region. While figures remain difficult to verify, it is estimated that the Taliban amasses a small fortune from the trade each year – with estimates of up to $150 million per annum. This money fuels the insurgency, sustains corruption within national and local government and creates the necessary conditions across Afghanistan for terrorists and insurgents to operate. The situation is now so bad in some areas of the country that American soldiers are now advised not to step foot in poppy fields or damage them in any way. Nor can they discourage poppy farmers, from growing their illicit crop, which is hardier and commands a higher price than alternatives such as wheat. Something has clearly gone badly wrong.

The truth is that the counter-narcotics campaign was always going to be a complex challenge for coalition forces. Politicians, military commanders and media commentators in the region are rightly concerned with what the increase in opium means for the drug trade and Afghanistan’s security in the future. The role of the US and its counter-narcotics strategy will also shape the UK’s response. Since 2009 the Obama Administration has scaled back on eradication efforts focusing instead on targeting Taliban-linked traffickers and alternative livelihoods efforts. Like the UK, the US has concentrated on implementing these programmes but with limited success. Should the current governance structures deteriorate post-2014 and corruption increase further, security will remain extremely fragile.

The challenge is not limited to Afghanistan. The impact of the drugs trade on Pakistan in particular is cause for concern. For the British government, Pakistan’s stability is likely to be a greater priority than Afghanistan in the future. As such, counter-narcotics work in the country – in particular supporting law enforcement activity may become a key priority for the government going forwards.

For the British government there is another equally pressing issue as the 2014 deadline draws closer: what does this all mean for UK national security?  The fear, expressed by some analysts, is that 2014 will mark the point where the UK and other coalition governments quietly cut counter narcotic programmes, reduce resources and shrink their footprint in the country.

Full piece here

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About Charlie Edwards

Charlie Edwards is Director of National Security and Resilience Studies at the Royal United Services Institute. Prior to RUSI he was a Research Leader at the RAND Corporation focusing on Defence and Security where he conducted research and analysis on a broad range of subject areas including: the evaluation and implementation of counter-violent extremism programmes in Europe and Africa, UK cyber strategy, European emergency management, and the role of the internet in the process of radicalisation. He has undertaken fieldwork in Iraq, Somalia, and the wider Horn of Africa region.