Hoping to stem burgeoning narcotics production and trafficking in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has established a "drug czar" for the country. However, the administration's choice for the post, Thomas A. Schweich, has provoked criticism on Capitol Hill. The US move comes as European Union nations are pondering a radically different approach the legalization of poppy production in Afghanistan.
The creation of the drug czar post, formally known as the Coordinator of Counter-Narcotics and Justice Reform in Afghanistan, was announced in late March. For Schweich, his new responsibilities do not seem to differ much from his former job -- principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement at the State Department.
In recent months, members of Congress and US policy analysts urged the administration to improve coordination of US anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan. Existing US programs, according to many inside the Beltway, are failing to curb narcotics cultivation and exports, and thus are helping to fan the Taliban insurgency and raise the threat of spreading instability across Central Asia. In a letter sent to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, members of Congress blamed inter-agency rivalries and the lack of close international coordination for the failing anti-drug efforts.
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, total poppy production in Afghanistan increased by 49 percent in 2006, and accounted for about 90 percent of the global opium supply. Since the ouster of the Taliban from power in Kabul in late 2001, the area under poppy cultivation has risen from roughly 8,000 hectares to an estimated 165,000 hectares.
Much of the expansion has occurred in the country's southern provinces, which have experienced a revival of the Taliban insurgency. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Zalmai Afzali, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Counter Narcotics, has admitted publicly that the expected record opium harvest this year is a likely harbinger of more aggressive action by the Taliban. In addition, Afghan drug trafficking helps to reinforce local warlords and criminal organizations at the expense of the already weak central government of President Hamid Karzai.
Many on Capitol Hill had hoped for the appointment of a higher-profile drug czar, rather than Schweich, who is seen as a diplomat with comparatively little experience and authority. Only a widely known individual with abundant prestige would possess the level of influence needed to compel various government agencies to cooperate on anti-drug measures, members of Congress indicated in their letter.
Schweich has set the ambitious goal of doubling the number of provinces free from opium production by the end of this year from the existing six to 12. At the same time, he acknowledged that expected progress in northern Afghanistan could be offset by increased opium production in southern Afghanistan. It will take a minimum of five years to turn the corner on eradication efforts in southern Afghanistan, he added.
Representatives of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force claim that the Taliban has been trafficking in drugs in order to fund recruitment and training efforts. Other analysts accuse Afghan civil servants, police, and army personnel of accepting bribes to allow the cultivation and shipment of narcotics. This rampant corruption has limited the ability of the Karzai government to implement an effective anti-narcotics program.
Among the main challenges facing Schweich are: promoting a reduction of narcotics-related corruption within the Afghan bureaucracy; improving coordination among US and Afghan government agencies; managing relations between the Bush administration and a Democrat-controlled Congress; and fostering improved cooperation between the United States and EU on a regional anti-drug program.
At present, tension is hampering joint US-Afghan action. The Bush administration favors aerial spraying as an eradication technique, and views the Afghan government's preferred method -- beating the heads of the poppy plants with sticks -- as ineffective and inefficient. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reports that crop destruction has been disproportionately directed towards poor farmers who lack assets and influence, while wealthy major producers escape enforcement through bribery or intimidation. In light of these problems, US officials have pressured Karzai to permit aerial spraying.
With the support of Great Britain and other EU countries, however, Karzai has blocked moves to spray poppy fields, arguing that doing so would enrage a large number of rural Afghans who are dependent on poppy production, and thus greatly expand grassroots support for the Taliban.
Meanwhile, it seems that the United States and EU are heading in different directions in their efforts to contain Afghan drug production. While the creation of the US drug czar is seen as a precursor to a toughened anti-drug response, leading EU nations are now seriously considering endorsing the legalization of poppy production, as well as the implementation of a program to buy opiates directly from Afghan farmers. According to reports in London on April 3, British Prime Minister Tony Blair has ordered a review of Britain's anti-drug policy for Afghanistan. German, French and Italian officials are also reportedly open to a drastic policy overhaul.
Under one plan now being studied by EU experts, poppy production would be legalized and state-sanctioned agents would buy the opiates directly from farmers, then resell the crop to pharmaceutical companies for use in pain medications and related products.
News of the possible change in the EU's position already has produced shock and rage from within the Bush administration. Whether or not the ideas currently under consideration in EU capitals are ever translated into action depend on several yet-to-be-determined factors. For example, experts and officials are still debating what the effect of legalization would be on Afghan poppy production -- would such a move merely encourage Afghan farmers to expand the amount of land devoted to poppy cultivation, or would it promote a greater sense of security, prompting Afghans to explore other methods of income generation? Whatever the outcome of the EU debate, it would seem that Schweich will be hard-pressed to promote US-EU unity on a regional counter-narcotics plan.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.