On July 27, US Ambassador Thomas A. Schweich, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, discussed upcoming changes in the Bush administration's counternarcotics policies in Afghanistan before a select group of Washington analysts.
Schweich acknowledged that US programs had only achieved mixed results in curbing the narcotics trade in Afghanistan. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, total annual poppy production in Afghanistan increased by 49 percent in 2006, from 4,500 to 6,700 metric tons of opium. US government experts estimate that opium production currently amounts to almost a third of Afghanistan's total Gross Domestic Product, or slightly over $3 billion.
Schweich concluded that it could take a minimum of five years to get the problem "under control." In his view, success will not involve completely ending local opium production, which he termed impossible.
The administration still considers the main elements of its five-point Afghan counternarcotics strategy fundamentally correct for advancing toward that deadline. These elements include (1) waging an effective public information campaign; (2) providing opium farmers with alternative and legal opportunities for earning their livelihood; (3) enhancing the capacity of Afghan law enforcement agencies to prosecute major narco-traffickers through their imprisonment or extradition; (4) eradicating opium crops; and (5) interdicting the flow of narcotics within and beyond Afghanistan.
Schweich insisted that the administration has seriously evaluated proposals to legalize opium production or to rely on what others claimed to be "miracle crops" that would rival opium in their profitability. No such crops had been found, Schweich explained, and the administration still considered wide-scale legalization impractical.
Some changes, however, are in store, Schweich said. In the area of public diplomacy, the United States will deemphasize its support for radio, print, and other traditional media advertising. Instead, US projects would concentrate more on person-to-person outreach campaigns that engage the political, religious and tribal leaders within each community.
Since no alternative crop can match the income earned from opium production, it was essential to increase the potential costs of participating in narcotics trafficking by increasing the financial and legal costs for potential traffickers. To help achieve this goal, the United States will enhance its training and equipping programs and fund an increase in the size of Afghanistan's counternarcotics police force so that the authorities can step up the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of leading drug traffickers.
In Schweich's assessment, some coercion is essential because many Afghan opium cultivators will only abandon their illegal activities when faced with more effective Afghan law enforcement institutions. He also maintained that a tough policy would assist the counterinsurgency campaign by countering Taliban efforts to portray the government of President Hamid Karzai as weak.
Schweich made clear the administration's unease with the limited effectiveness of the Afghan government's existing eradication efforts. The primarily manual and mechanical techniques used can eliminate at best only some 10 percent of Afghanistan's overall opium crop -- an insufficient tally, according to Washington. Schweich estimated that this figure must climb to a rate of about 25 percent.
In addition, Schweich acknowledged that eradication efforts had to become more equitable. Both US and United Nations analysts conclude that crop destruction has disproportionately affected poor farmers, while wealthy major producers escape enforcement through bribery or intimidation. Schweich expressed particular animosity regarding the phenomenon of "negotiated eradication," when Afghan government eradicators and local officials bargain over where and under what conditions the crop destruction campaign would occur. The resulting deals typically disrupt carefully targeted eradication campaigns, he said.
Seizing raw opium before it reaches heroin labs for processing is another difficult challenge since the material is easy to store and moves through Central Asia via well-funded and entrenched trafficking networks. While US government experts estimate that about one-quarter of Afghan opium shipments are intercepted, only 2 percent of those interdictions occur within Afghanistan itself. To address this situation, aside from expanded assistance programs and funds for a larger counternarcotics police, the United States plans to work with other governments to strengthen the Afghan judicial system, Schweich said.
Nonetheless, the ambassador warned that there are no "silver bullets" for solving the Afghan drug problem. Success, in his words, will only come when the cultivation and distribution of Afghan opium has declined to such an extent that it no longer presents a major threat to the security of Afghanistan and to the rest of the international community.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.