Donor-supported approaches to eradication

A number of donor nations are working directly with the Afghan government in its fight to enforce the rule of law and reduce the impact of the opium economy. Initially not seen as a high-priority issue, opium has become more centre stage since President Hamid Karzai himself described it as a major security threat to Afghanistan and requested ordinary Afghans to declare 'holy war' against the trade.

The governments of the United Kingdom and United States stand out among the various contributing donors as being heavily committed to assisting the government to eradicate poppy cultivation. London primarily because it experience the consequences of the trade on its streets in the form of more drugs and drug-related crime. Washington understands that heroin profits support terrorism and destabilisation in the region and further afield.

Other donors are committed to the fight against heroin production in Afghanistan through rural development schemes and capacity building within the judiciary, police and border guard. But the US and UK remain the leaders in making serious levels of investment in different aspects of opium reduction strategies, in terms of financial resources as well as in the provision of expert personnel.

Attacking heroin supply - the British support for eradication in Afghanistan

Following the 2001 Bonn Agreement, which laid out modalities for peace, reconstruction and recovery in Afghanistan, international donors met in Geneva in April 2002. At this conference the UK took a lead in coordinating efforts to help the Afghan government combat narcotics. The British opium policy in Afghanistan includes capacity building and institutional support for counter-narcotics policing in Kabul and the provinces, while also providing funding for alternative livelihood schemes.

The British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has highlighted the problem of Afghan heroin in Britain, linking UK policy in Afghanistan to his government's desire to reduce drug-related crime at home. A central motivation for British support to the Afghan government, therefore, is to see a significant reduction in the supply of Afghan heroin on British streets.

In February 2004, the UK government joined the Afghan government and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in co-hosting an international counter-narcotics conference in Kabul. The central debate at the conference addressed the Afghan national drug control strategy, to which the UK has committed approximately US $130 million over the next three years.

The compensation approach

According to an Economist Intelligence Unit report, when the UK first launched its support programme for the reduction of opium production, "An initial plan to purchase the entire crop at a cost of $50 million - $150 million was jettisoned for fear it might prompt other farmers, not yet involved, to cultivate poppy for profit: instead growers were offered payments to destroy their crops".

The approach adopted during 2002, and into 2003, was to instead offer cash compensation to individual poppy cultivators for destruction of the poppy in their fields. Offering between $250-$300 per 'jerib' (five 'jeribs' are equivalent to one hectare), the British, in collaboration with Afghan authorities, disbursed approximately $3.5 million in compensation. Specialist British police and counter-narcotics agents in Kabul worked with Afghan authorities who implemented the programme through local provincial officials.

The exercise was abandoned when evidence showed that farmers saw this approach as an incentive to replant, or increase cultivation, in anticipation of greater compensation for subsequent harvests. In some case farmers complained that officials administering the payments pocketed much of the cash in the process, which took place in remote rural areas.

The Economist Intelligence Unit on 15 May 2004 further reported that "the scheme fell prey to corrupt seizures of opium paste, non-payment of farmers and violent protests in Helmand, where eight farmers died [in 2002] when security forces fired on them". A senior representative of the Aga Khan Foundation, who works closely with rural communities in poppy cultivating regions, told IRIN the approach was "a total failure".

The governor-led approach

The revised, but not dissimilar, approach adopted since 2003 has been to work with the government to pay governors to eradicate poppy in the areas under their jurisdiction. This governor-led eradication approach was initiated by President Karzai himself and enjoys the support of donors, including the British government.

Farmers imploring eradicators to leave their crops
Credit: IRIN/Chris Horwood

The money provided is meant to fund the transport and personnel needed to travel to fields and beat down the crops before harvest - without compensation to the farmer. IRIN saw evidence in the northeastern province of Badakshan in mid-2004 that the governor, who had been paid a $115,000 first installment (50 percent) up front, carried out partial and symbolic eradication with men and vehicles requisitioned, not hired, for the task. Villagers interviewed considered the approach to be flawed in so far as effective eradication was not being undertaken.

Members of the British team in Kabul and in Badakshan told IRIN that many governors were unreliable, were implicated in the opium trade, and that eradication would be a slow and complex struggle. One village leader in Badakshan complained to IRIN that people came with "bags of dollars", that there was much corruption, and in the end what eradication did occur resulted from coercion by the drug lords themselves so that they could appear to be doing the job.

Under the governor-led reduction stategy, President Karzai's stated ambition for 2004 is that poppy growing will be eradicated from 25 percent of the currently cultivated areas. Recognising the complexity of the problem at the rural level, and understanding the possible involvement of local officials, President Karzai is trying to co-opt governors into being part of the solution instead of confronting them head-on. It is a 'softly-softly' approach that seeks to increase the credibility of eradication without stirring up a hornets' nest of opposition in the rural areas where Kabul's control is, at best, tenuous.

Commenting on the Afghan government's reliance on law enforcement, a Regional Drug Strategy Manager with the UNODC told IRIN that "the structures that one takes for granted in other countries are just not here. Implementation of any laws is questionable if there are no means to implement the law."

A number of observers have highlighted the divergent approaches of the UK and US governments. The US favours a robust strategy for eradication and has expressed impatience with the British approach, which some officials regard as "overly restrictive". Robert B.Charles, the Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told the US House Committee on International Relations in April 2004 that the UK had shown "a preoccupation with avoiding any possibility of resistance" when targeting eradication.

Denying the enemies - The US approach to eradication

Newly trained Stop & Search interdiction team in Kabul
Credit: IRIN/Chris Horwood

According to the US Drug Enforcement Adminstration (DEA), only five percent of all opiates reaching the US originate in Afghanistan. Unlike the British approach, the US focus is not on supply reduction in the fight to reduce drug-related crime back home; instead the primary concern is to stem the lucrative resource base that poppy offers enemies of the US. If the trade can be reduced by 80 percent, IRIN was told, the US will have achieved its objectives.

A recent anti-drugs TV advertisement campaign in the US told viewers that anyone using drugs was a 'de facto' financier of terrorism. A State Department official in Kabul told IRIN that the US policy on eradication is "fast and furious, aiming to eliminate the illegal trade in opium in three to five years".

An unfinished history

US policy on narcotics in recent decades has been driven primarily by political realities, shifting alliances, and the resource-value of illicit narcotics. During the 1950's and 1960's, in an effort to contain the spread of Communism in South East Asia, the US forged alliances with a number of groups in the area known as the 'Golden Triangle'(Laos, Myanmar, Thailand), alliances that author Alfred McCoy says indirectly led to an expansion in the trafficking of opium, resulting in the region becoming the main provider of heroin to the western world (see "The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia").

The 1980's saw a surge in the global supply of heroin due, in part, to increased Opium production in Myanmar and Afghanistan and a failure of interdiction efforts. McCoy argues that Western covert aid to the mujaheddin guerrillas during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan contributed to the expansion of opium production in the country and helped link heroin laboratories in neighbouring Pakistan to the world market (see Later, during the Taliban period, the Northern Alliance (key allies of the US in the subsequent fight to remove the regime) was also involved in the production and export of heroin.

Family members look on as eradication teams go to work in Badakshan
Credit: IRIN/Chris Horwood

With its focus on combating global terrorism, US support for poppy eradiction in Afghanistan is today being driven by the need to stem the flow of funds to America's enemies. A US State Department drugs expert in Kabul explained to IRIN that opium and heroin provide an important resource base for the Taliban remnant, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's fundamentalist Islamic group and al-Qaeda. This is the central motivation for the style and urgency of the present US counter-narcotic strategy in Afghanistan.

The four pillars of the policy

Forced eradication is one of four pillars that make up the multi-million dollar investment representing the US drug policy in Afghanistan. The three others pillars are: support of law enforcement effectiveness, interdiction capacity and 'alternative development' initiatives.

In 2003, the US ploughed tens of millions of dollars into 'alternative livelihood' schemes and some smaller amounts into supporting the nascent, counter-narcotics police units. The alternative livelihood programmes, which included community development and crop substitution schemes, yielded poor results. In some cases implementing non-governmental organizations have returned US funds, claiming the concept of alternative livelihoods was unworkable at present. This year the US has minimised its investment in rural development, preferring to fund hard-hitting eradication initiatives designed to wipe out fields of poppy and raise significantly the credibility of eradication. IRIN was told by a State Department expert in Kabul that the US was dropping its investment in alternative development efforts from $36 million in 2003 to only $6 million in 2004.

The deterrence threshold

The US considers that adopting a 'zero tolerance' approach (the approach used in Colombia where a 100-percent eradication of the narcotics economy is sought) is neither necessary nor possible to achieve in Afghanistan. Instead it says eradication should be "random, certain and universal - with no areas exempt". The aim is to dramatically influence a farmer's planning decisions by increasing the fear of possible eradication of future crops. The UNODC Farmers' Intentions Survey 2003/4 suggests that only 17 percent of farmers surveyed do not plant opium because of fear of eradication. The same report admits that "eradication efforts have not yet reached the deterrence threshold".

The tools of eradication range from manual slashing of crops, use of tractors, rotor tillers and weed cutters, but chemicals are not used. The US currently finances the training and deployment of four teams of 150 men, in addition to a team of 75 agents of an international security firm who are needed to protect the teams from attack as they conduct the eradication. These teams make up the Central Poppy Eradication Force under the auspices of the Ministry of the Interior.

Law enforcement of the opium ban is weak
Credit: IRIN/Chris Horwood

By mid-2004 the training and recruitment of these teams was underway, but only one group had already been deployed, to Wardak in central Afghanistan. The initial response of local inhabitants is an indication of the level of animosity the eradication force may continue to face in the future. In May 2004, some staff were injured by a landmine in a poppy field, thought to have been laid to sabotage the work. In June, a convoy of eradicators narrowly escaped improvised explosive devices planted along the road they were travelling. In addition, staff are regularly threatened by angry locals. The demonstration in Helmand in the spring of 2002, when 2,000 disgruntled farmers staged a protest march, is an earlier example of farmers reacting to the government's eradication policy. According to a report in the London-based Guardian newspaper at the time, eight farmers were shot dead and another 35 wounded by security forces as the march turned violent.

Political risks

The "fast and furious" approach of the US, as well as the governor-led eradication policy favoured by the UK, are being resisted by farmers, and the resistance looks set to increase. President Karzai will need to calculate how far these approaches can be pushed before he and his government experience bitter resentment in rural areas. At a time when they are trying to convince Afghans to participate in a centrally-led democratic process towards national unity, the political price of rapid and random eradication may be too high.

A village leader in Badakshan, where partial eradication had just taken place, told IRIN: "If eradication is equal it will not be problematic; only if it is unequal do we disagree. Now it is unfair; in some districts not one poppy has been destroyed". With more than 80,000 hectares (400,000 'jeribs') of land planted with poppy in 2003 in 28 provinces of Afghanistan, and involving an estimated 1.7 million people, few experts trust any eradication policy to produce swift and equitable results in the short to medium-term.