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Sunday, March 26, 2017
To Defeat Terrorism In Afghanistan, Start With Opium Crops in Nangarhar Province
This month, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) claimed an attack on a military hospital in Kabul, killing more than 40 civilians and defenseless patients. The attack came two days after the Afghan military announced that its month-long “Shaheen 25” operations had killed 250 Islamic State militants in the terrorist organization’s Afghan stronghold of Nangarhar Province. Two weeks ago, an Islamic State improvised explosive device (IED) injured three U.S. soldiers in Jalalabad, the capital city of Nangarhar. Last week, the U.S. military in Afghanistan vowed to defeat Islamic State in area by the end of 2017. Military strikes and raids against Islamic State and the Taliban are needed, but when militants are captured or killed, these terrorist groups can quickly hire more from their compatriots across the border in Pakistan. To end the cycle of Islamic State, Taliban, and other terrorist violence in Afghanistan requires constriction of terrorist financing, including through both demand and supply interventions against drug revenues that in part finance terrorism.
A member of the Afghan security force fires a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launcher during an operation against Islamic State (IS) militants in Kot district of Nangarhar province on February 16, 2017. Afghan National Army (ANA) and international air forces, including the U.S., launched a joint military operation against Islamic State (IS) militants, after houses of locals were torched and several people were killed by IS fighters in the area. Credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images
Afghanistan produces 70-80% of the world’s opium, and in 2015, over 127,000 people worldwide died of opium-related deaths. Afghan opium production surged 43% in Afghanistan in 2016, in part due to a new genetically modified poppy seed introduced from China in 2015. Targeting opium production in Afghanistan is timely, and important for two reasons: opium does harm to opiate abusers worldwide, and as an illicit economy, it incentivizes corruption and criminality, and is being used to fund terrorism. In economic terminology, the opium crop in Afghanistan has major international negative externalities, and these externalities can only be fully controlled through better law enforcement.
The farmers and landless laborers in Afghanistan who grow or work on opium crops are some of the world’s poorest people. Their illicit form of livelihood is accepted out of desperation, and so we should be understanding and empathetic towards their plight. Better opportunities should be afforded to opium growers to draw them away from their economic dependence on opium. But the laws of economics will always draw some growers back when prices of opium rise. Therefore disincentives like poppy eradication are necessary. In Afghanistan, drug supply should be decreased through accelerated opium poppy eradication, like aerial herbicide dusting and confiscation of land used for poppy production.
Afghan addicts inject and smoke heroin in Jalalabad on January 31, 2013. Sixteen years after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to drive the Taliban from power, Afghanistan produces 70-80% percent of the world’s illegal opium, funding much of the militia’s insurgency despite an expensive Western eradication program. Credit: Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty
The policy response to narco-terrorism in Afghanistan has been muted by the risk aversion of politicians, corruption of officials, the niceties of academics, and the timidity of development experts who shy away from imposing disincentives on impoverished opium farmers. Those who are hurt by opium growers, such as Afghan and global victims of terrorism, crime, corruption, and drugs, are not as well organized as opium growers. They are a diffuse interest group, compared to opium growers, who are a concentrated interest group able to influence local and national politicians in Afghanistan. Policies that help decrease the drug supply, and decrease funds to terrorists, need to be implemented despite the Afghan opium cartel’s resistance.
Demand should be decreased through better treatment policies for drug users that reduce users’ harm in exchange for giving them treatment, while targeting dealers with traditional law enforcement techniques. This will decrease demand for opium in Afghanistan, which will facilitate conversion of agricultural land to legitimate crops. The alternative to a tough and holistic strategy against both supply and demand will allow narco-terrorism in Afghanistan, including of the Taliban and Islamic State variety, to continue to make gains at the expense of the elected government, and worldwide communities beset by an epidemic of heroin abuse.
(FILES) In this photograph taken on April 19, 2016, an Afghan farmer harvests opium sap from a poppy field in the Chaparhar district of Nangarhar province. Afghanistan saw a 43 percent jump in opium cultivation this year, a sharp rise owing to favourable weather, growing insecurity, genetically-modified Chinese seeds, and a drop in international support for counter-narcotics operations, the UN said. Credit: NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images.
Nangarhar is the province in which Islamic State is strongest. The Taliban, a more successful terrorist group in Afghanistan, is also active in Nangarhar. If Islamic State can increase its footprint in Nangarhar it may eventually be able to challenge both the Taliban and elected government of Afghanistan in other regions. So the drug trade in Nangarhar, which is vulnerable to terrorist capture, should be a priority for eradication. This will deny its use for financing to both the Taliban and Islamic State. According to the U.N., the province had 14,344 hectares of poppy fields in 2016, an increase of 43% from the 10,016 hectares in 2015. There is evidence of continued poppy production in 2017, including two heroin factories shut down this month.
There is some uncertainty as to the quantity of revenue that the Taliban and Islamic State obtain from opium in Nangarhar. Field research and aerial imagery analysis from the European Union funded Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) in the 2015 to 2016 growing season shows that in areas of Nangarhar held by Islamic State, the terrorist organization does not depend on opium for funding, and is eradicating poppy in the province. Islamic State also closed a major drug bazaar in the province. More data is needed on these issues, and that data should be made public. The public has a right and a need to know what the Taliban and Islamic State are doing in Afghanistan, and how best to stop them. NATO should conduct and release more aerial imagery data for analysis by nonprofit groups like AREU. This especially applies in Nangarhar, which could be an outlet for Islamic State fighters that flee Mosul and Raqqa in the Middle East as those cities are retaken by Iraqi, Turkish, or Kurdish soldiers.
Non-profit analysis groups like AREU are doing much-needed longitudinal, imagery, GPS, and fieldwork analysis of agricultural and human societies in opium growing areas of Afghanistan. But they need more regular funding, and in greater quantity. They are currently seeking funds, for example, to do aerial surveillance of agricultural regions in Nangarhar Province, which will prove the extent of poppy eradication by Islamic State in the 2016 to 2017 growing season. This is critical analytical work that will help target a potential funding source of the Islamic State in Afghanistan, if it exists. Such analysis should be supported, and quickly. Compared to the cost of military operations in Afghanistan, the funding required for this analysis is miniscule.
LASHKAR GAH, AFGHANISTAN - APRIL 01: U.S. Army Col. Paul Calbos walks through an opium poppy field on April 1, 2006 near Lashkar Gah in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. Colonel Calbos survived a suicide car bombing on his three-vehicle convoy outside an American base in Lashkar Gah April 7, 2006. Calbos, who was in the lead vehicle of the convoy, said that one U.S. soldier and one American DynCorp security contractor were injured when an explosives-packed car drove in between the second and third vehicles of the convoy as it approached the entrance to the base. The U.S. military and DynCorp team was training leaders of the Afghan Eradication Force charged with destroying the country's large opium poppy crop. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Current methods of manual opium poppy eradication, such as use of sticks by local officials to break the stems of poppy flowers, are a complete failure in Afghanistan. They only succeed at making the state appear to be doing something about the problem. But only about 60% of Afghanistan is under the control of the elected government. When the eradication teams venture into rural opium growing areas, the typical stronghold of the Taliban, they are vulnerable to attacks. Regardless of who controls the land, the eradication teams are vulnerable to official Afghan corruption. They lack proper performance metrics, such as measures of second and third order intended effects. Poppy eradication under centralized control, for example aerial herbicide application and land confiscation directed from the capital in Kabul, would evade the Taliban and avoid most of the province- and district-level corruption that has stymied prior poppy eradication efforts in Afghanistan.
Aerial herbicide application has had limited success elsewhere. A 10-year program of aerial spraying of herbicides on coca crops worked to decrease narcotics production by 50% in Colombia.The herbicide glyphosate is widely used in U.S. agriculture, and is seen as relatively safe if not mixed with other herbicides. Its limited use on opium poppy in Afghanistan could be justified to decrease the production of illicit opiates. Glyphosate could be used in a Nangarhar pilot program against a small percentage of poppy fields to raise the risk for poppy farmers just enough to dissuade them from future planting of poppy for the next growing season. If Islamic State is not currently growing poppy, areas of Taliban or government control could be targeted. The spraying should be announced well in advance of the planting season, and phased in slowly over time to give farmers time to choose an alternative mix of crops, and to benefit from government-provided retraining and agricultural extensions. Opium could be replaced, for example, by wheat, onion, green beans, corn, saffron, or horticultural crops. For those on desert lands unsuitable for alternative crops, for example newly-settled areas in Helmand Province under Taliban control, the government and international aid agencies should match limited aerial herbicide application with advance subsidized relocation and retraining for improved access to non-farm jobs. First focusing on Nangarhar for a pilot program will both attenuate terrorist financing from the province, and serve as an example for other provinces in the East and South of Afghanistan.
Poor farmers, and those who take full advantage of crop conversion programs, could be exempted from the threat of herbicides at first in order to avoid major humanitarian issues of previous opium bans, such as reduced food and health expenditures, sale of daughters, sale of capital assets like livestock and land, increased crime, and increased support for the insurgency. Landless laborers hired for poppy cultivation should be given land of their own to decrease the labor supply available to large-scale wealthy poppy farmers. Repayment of opium-denominated debts with family members and capital goods could be forestalled by providing funding or microloans to any farmer in this dire situation.
Only a small percentage of the poppy fields of wealthy farmers who do not pursue conversion programs should be sprayed. Selective herbicide application gradually phased in with sufficient supports would be announced far in advance, and the mere risk of such applications would be enough to incentivize many poppy farmers to convert their fields in the next season. Poppy farmers in Afghanistan are generally attuned to political changes in poppy eradication sentiment and plans. So, advance warning of aerial eradication, which has not yet been used extensively in Afghanistan, would likely lead to immediate decreases in poppy planting if farmers believe in the resolve of authorities. Increases in crime and support for the insurgency may occur, but these would be short-term effects if the government maintains or slowly increases its poppy eradication efforts each year.
An Afghan policeman watches as a cache of alcohol and drugs burns on the outskirts of Kabul on December 20, 2016. Ninety eight tons of opium, heroin, hashish and alcoholic drinks were set on fire, officials said. Credit: SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
Another counter-narcotics strategy that should be seriously considered in Afghanistan is the confiscation of land from owners of poppy crops. This land could be redistributed to the landless laborers who work on such crops, creating a political interest group in favor of tough approaches to poppy eradication. The new owners themselves would know they would lose their land if they decided to plant poppy. This would pressure landowners who profit from illicit opium production, not just poor sharecroppers. Land confiscation actually protects poor sharecroppers and the landless by holding landowners responsible for use of their land in poppy farming, rather than imposing costs on the sharecroppers and landless.
Landowners, rather than sharecroppers, are arguably more responsible, and benefit to a greater extent, from sharecropper use of land for illicit but profitable poppy farming. In regions of Afghanistan where poppy farming is common, landowners typically increase rents on land to capture the increased profits yielded by poppy as compared to other crops. According to researchers David Mansfield and Paul Fishstein, who have done years of fieldwork in poppy regions of Afghanistan, including Nangarhar, “in areas where poppy is concentrated, the rentable value of land is inflated to such a point that farmers cultivating legal crops would not be able to meet their rent.” The high rents of poppy regions essentially forces non-owning farmers to plant poppy in order to pay the rent. The landowner, who sets these high rents, is therefore at least partially responsible for the use of his land by sharecroppers or renters for illicit poppy production, and so should bear serious legal consequences. Confiscation of land is one such consequence, and has been effective elsewhere, including against opium growers in China in the early 1900s, and against coca growers in Bolivia in the early 2000s.
In this photograph taken on October 4, 2016, poppy farmer Nehmatullah, 34, holds poppy seeds on the palm of his hand during an interview with AFP in his home in Lashkar Gah, Helmand province. Afghanistan has all the trappings of a narco-state, with opium production - the lifeblood of the Taliban insurgency - from the traditional spring harvest alone edging towards a record high. Credit: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images.
War and illegal drugs are two major causes of mortality worldwide. Afghanistan is unfortunately a center of both, and they propel each other in symbiotic fashion, exporting negative externalities of drug dependence and terrorism that make purely positive development strategies untenable. Tougher policies against opium growing in Afghanistan would decrease Taliban and Islamic State sources and potential sources of income, and decrease the supply of global heroin. A pilot program of aerial herbicide application in Nangarhar Province, combined with land confiscation from landowners who allow their land to grow opium poppies, and land redistribution to landless laborers, will be far more effective than current manual eradication programs dependent on corrupt local officials. At the same time, large countries beset by heroin addiction, for example the U.S., Russia, China, India, and Iran, must take more effective measures to decrease their demand for opium. This includes opium user harm reduction strategies, as in Switzerland, combined with traditional law enforcement against heroin dealers. Only by targeting both global demand and Afghan supply of heroin, can we hope to bring that country’s persistent narco-terrorism to an end.