Holbrooke's drug war: From the AfPak Channel

Holbrooke's drug war
Mon, 08/03/2009 - The AfPak Channel, Foreign Policy

In June, I met with Ambassador Richard Holbrooke to discuss how the drug trade benefits the Afghan Taliban. I urged him to pay close attention to the two history chapters of my book, Seeds of Terror, warning that Washington has a habit of making the same mistakes over and over in Afghanistan.

He assured me the Obama team had consulted with a raft of experts and historians, adding with a laugh: "We plan to make new mistakes."

I am not entirely sure, however.

Broadly speaking, the Obama administration's counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan is a huge step in the right direction. Thousands more western troops have poured into the Taliban-dominated southern poppy belt to provide security, and to train local security forces or replace those who were themselves tied to the drug trade. Efforts have intensified to interdict drug traffickers, destroy opium stockpiles and confiscate precursor chemicals. The Good Performance Initiative, co-funded with the UK, provides development assistance to communities that eliminate or significantly reduce narcotics cultivation. And there is greater focus on helping farmers find viable alternative crops to poppy and cannabis.

There is no doubt the Bush administration's proposal to launch a wide-scale aerial spraying campaign to wipe out Afghanistan's poppy fields was wildly misguided. It would have not only created a humanitarian disaster, and sent tens of thousands of poor villagers running to the arms of the insurgents, it would have actually benefitted the Taliban, drug traffickers and corrupt officials by driving up the farm-gate price of opium poppy.

Recent ground eradication efforts also were a costly flop. As Ambassador Holbrooke himself explained, they were wildly expensive - estimated to cost as much as $44,000 a hectare - and dangerous for the local eradicators, who died by the dozens in attacks by the Taliban and traffickers. Meanwhile, wealthy landowners and the politically well connected were able to bribe eradication teams not to cut down their poppy fields, meaning poor farmers became the predominant targets.

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