State Department Pushing Aerial Poppy Eradication in Afghanistan

Afghan villagers tend to opium poppies in the Nad-e Ali district of Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan, April 12, 2007. (Photo: STR / AFP-Getty Images)

Despite little evidence that a massive program of aerial coca crop fumigation has worked in Colombia, and despite serious reservations by the Pentagon and by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the State Department, backed by the White House, is quietly pushing the expansion of aerial poppy eradication into Afghanistan as a way to fight the Taliban.

Soon Afghanistan, which produces 92 percent of the world's opium and 80 percent of the world's heroin, may be the target of a program of Plan Colombia-style aerial crop eradication. With the Afghan war entering a tenuous new phase, the stakes are high: Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said he will send an additional 3,200 American troops to Afghanistan in March as a defense against a possible spring offensive by Taliban insurgents. The additional troops will come on top of the 27,000 American troops already there as part of both the 50,000-strong NATO force as well as a separate American contingent.

The aggressive campaign of aerial eradication of coca crops that is part of Plan Colombia, the most comprehensive and ambitious American foreign assistance plan ever aimed at stopping cocaine at its source, has had decidedly mixed results. Since its inception in 2000, the annual military and aid package, which so far totals close to $5 billion, has not succeeded in combating Colombia's cocaine problem.

While it seems clear that Plan Colombia has strengthened the capability of the Colombian military through training and funding for hardware, the plan has not diminished significantly the volume of the Andean nation's cocaine production or export. The country continues to supply 85 percent of the American cocaine market. Today, the main insurgent group there, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), continues to earn as much as $500 million annually from the drug trade.

For now, the prospect of the United States imposing a Plan Colombia-type aerial eradication program in Afghanistan has been put on hold, although some ground-based, forced eradication is underway. In early December, Afghan President Karzai once more rebuffed State Department officials pushing for aerial spraying over the Afghan poppy fields. It was the fourth consecutive time since 2003 that a normally conciliatory Karzai refused the offer.

U.S. and Afghan Reservations

Karzai isn't the only one with misgivings: Some in the Pentagon and the C.I.A. are reluctant to see such a program go forward—particularly before it is possible to offer alternative livelihoods for impoverished farmers who cultivate poppy, the raw material for heroin and opium. These critics fear counterinsurgency efforts against the Taliban and intelligence-gathering operations on the ground would be endangered.

Every one of the 25 other NATO allies, meanwhile, staunchly oppose the plan—in particular the British and the Dutch, who also have a lot to lose in the alliance's first deployment outside its traditional theater of operation.

Even the American NATO commander in Afghanistan is at a loss. "We are not manned, we are not equipped, and we are not trained," for forced eradication, Army Gen. Dan K. McNeill, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force told the Financial Times in May 2007. "Eradication done improperly is counterintuitive to running the counterinsurgency because it will alienate people and you may have more insurgent people appearing than you had before."

In December testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Gates also cautioned against the hasty institution of crop eradication.

"The day we go in and eradicate somebody's crops, we better be there with alternative seeds, some money, and a way to get the product to the market, or we will have just recruited somebody else for the Taliban," Gates told the committee. "And I think too often," he added, "there has been a desire to go after the eradication without the rest of the package being there."

Earlier this month, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, in testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, indicated that the aerial spraying program has been the weakest part of Plan Colombia. McConnell testified Feb. 5 that "Colombia's better-trained security forces and improving counterinsurgency capabilities have significantly weakened the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, confining the group's operations largely to ambushes and harassment attacks."

He added, however: "Although aggressive U.S.-supported aerial eradication has diminished coca cultivation in some areas, coca farmers have adapted by moving beyond the reach of the spray program or taking actions to save or replace sprayed fields. In response, the Uribe administration is combining spray efforts with increased emphasis on manual eradication."

At the State Department, Meanwhile …

At the State Department, meanwhile, many officials continue to advocate for aerial spraying, although much of the debate is occurring behind closed doors. A spokeswoman for the State Department would not definitively say whether State would again press the Karzai government to adopt aerial spraying later this year. "Once we have this year's cultivation figures," said Barbara Silverstein, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, "we will work with the government of Afghanistan and our international partners on the best approach to take." And while key players in the White House—from President Bush to Condoleezza Rice to National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley to John P. Walters, the director of national drug control policy—have all personally raised the matter with Karzai, the administration has yet to make a public statement on the issue.

Mark L. Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group and an expert in counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan and Colombia, said that during a visit to Afghanistan in October he spoke with several United States Embassy officials "clearly hoping to reverse poppy production" through aerial eradication. In particular, "with the arrival of Bill Wood," he added, "they've regularly been pushing it."

Schneider was referring to former United States Ambassador to Colombia William Wood: Nicknamed "Chemical Bill" by the British press for his boisterous enthusiasm for aerial coca eradication there, Wood was appointed ambassador to Afghanistan in April 2007. Anne Patterson, another ambassador to Bogotá during Plan Colombia, is now ambassador in neighboring Pakistan.

Other efforts are afoot. Colombian police have been training Afghan police in commando tactics near Kabul's international airport, where construction began on an $8 million Counter Narcotics Justice Center last year. Rising from the slums, this core effort of the Bush administration's Afghan policy is a "one-stop" center for drug-related cases, with two courts, offices for 70 prosecutors and investigators, and jail cells for 56 "high value" drug suspects.

None of this, however, addresses the biggest concern for people in Afghanistan: "Many rural communities in the south and east are growing increasingly concerned that the government cannot guarantee even their physical security—a core function of a legitimate and viable state," wrote David Mansfield and Adam Pain in a November 2007 briefing paper for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based non-profit.

The security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated throughout 2007. In September, the United Nations secretary general told the Security Council "the boldness and frequency of suicide bombings, ambushes, and direct fire attacks have increased," citing an average of 548 attacks a month in 2007—already 20 percent higher than the year before. As of the end of 2007, the total number of attacks by insurgents had climbed to near 6,000—up from 4,542 in 2006 and 1,558 in 2005, according to United Nations and other estimates.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on illicit economies and conflict, says aerial spraying in Afghanistan would not improve these statistics in favor of coalition forces. "If massive eradication is undertaken," she said, "it will be inevitable that the people will grow hostile to the central government and see NATO forces as complicit."

Seth Jones, a senior analyst at the RAND Corporation and a specialist in counterinsurgencies, said that even Al Qaeda—already active in the region—could stand to benefit along with the Taliban. "There is no doubt that spraying and eradication tends to increase support for insurgent groups," said Jones. "It's not the primary reason Al Qaeda and other groups are operating in this area—but it would add fuel to their presence."

Alienating Locals

Planes or helicopters spraying from above likely would stir up bitter memories for the Afghan people. There is much evidence to suggest that at the beginning of the Soviet occupation in the early 1980's Moscow violated the 1972 Biological Warfare Convention by spraying "yellow rain" on Afghans, leading to as many as 3,000 deaths. (Scientists have speculated that the main lethal agents in "yellow rain" were poisonous substances generated by a grain fungus—substances known to cause vomiting, hemorrhaging, and death.)

In a clear signal of its unease at the prospect of spraying, President Karzai's government wants to form an international committee of scientists to study the chemical components that would be used in Afghanistan.

In Colombia, the State Department vigorously insists, aerial spraying has been damaging to neither humans nor the environment.

'One of the Most Widely Used Agricultural Chemicals in the World' …

The principal "broad spectrum"—or non-selective—herbicide used in aerial fumigation is glyphosate "one of the most widely used agricultural chemicals in the world," according to Silverstein of the State Department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. "The aerial eradication program uses 15 percent of the total amount of glyphosate used in Colombia for agricultural purposes each year. Glyphosate has been extensively tested over 30 years and widely used in Colombia, in the United States, and in 100 other countries around the globe for a variety of agricultural purposes." Glyphosate, she noted, would also be used in aerial spraying missions in Afghanistan.

"The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency approved glyphosate for general use in 1974 and re-certified it in September 1993," she added. "It is approved by the E.P.A. for use on crops, forests, and residential areas," while two studies, including one peer-reviewed within the Organization of American States, have found risks to "human health and the environment to be minimal."

Eyewitness testimony and other evidence, however, suggests the possibility that crop spraying in Colombia has unintended effects. Since 1999, for example, two additional and controversial chemicals, or "surfractants," have been added to the spray: Cosmo Flux 411F and Cosmo-In-D. While ensuring that the mixture sticks to plant leaves, Cosmo Flux has led to complaints of skin burns on humans and animals. In its Oct. 12, 2002, issue, the New Scientist reported that the State Department had, three years after the introduction of the new chemicals, yet to conduct a single study of the effects of additives like Cosmo Flux on humans or the environment.

Representatives of the Washington Office on Latin America, a policy research group, traveled to the department of Guaviare in 1997 to investigate a particularly intensive spraying campaign there the year before. (Aerial spraying had actually begun in 1994, but accelerated significantly under Plan Colombia.)

"We received numerous complaints of health-related problems that have occurred after people literally have been sprayed while working in the fields or nearby," wrote Coletta A. Youngers, a senior research associate at the group, in a briefing report. "One individual told of going blind in one eye after the field of banana trees he was working in was fumigated along with a neighboring field containing coca. Others told of animals dying after drinking water from contaminated streams, or cattle dropping dead shortly after fumigation planes came through."

Both in Colombia, with its aerial spraying, and in Afghanistan—where limited ground-based, forced eradication is already underway—some coca and poppy farmers have been driven into the arms of the otherwise deeply unpopular FARC and Taliban movements.

John Walsh, senior associate for the Andes at the Washington Office on Latin America, says there has been a crisis of "government legitimacy" when it comes to aerial spraying and forced coca eradication. "When [the government] doesn't show up at all except to destroy your crop," he said, "you're going to question the government."

Against the backdrop of an already serious civil conflict, violence in Colombia increased in some areas following the introduction of aerial and forced eradication. In the late 1990's, tens of thousands of coca growers, in some cases backed by the FARC, clashed violently with police in regions across Colombia after their crops were sprayed. In one incident in the southern region of Putumayo alone, 8,000 peasant farmers fought with police in an effort to close the airport at Puerto Asis. Two farmers were killed and 26 others were injured.

Afghanistan, too, has witnessed comparable attacks against local authorities in the wake of forced eradication. In Helmand province in 2002, more than 2,000 poppy farmers fought with police in Lashkargah in protest of eradication: Eight people were killed and 35 were injured. There have also been reports of Afghan National Police officers shot by snipers and killed by landmines while eradicating crops elsewhere in Afghanistan. (Helmand produces more than 50 percent of Afghanistan's poppy.)

'Getting the Causality Wrong'

In any event, says Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings: "There has not been one single case in which an insurgency has been defeated by economic means—and this includes drugs. It has never worked anywhere."

Indeed, both Colombia's leftist guerillas and Afghanistan's Islamist insurgents created security problems for their respective countries well before illicit narcotics entered the equation. "People are getting the causality wrong," said Carl Robichaud, director of the Afghanistan Watch Program at the Century Foundation, a think tank with offices in New York and Washington. "There is a narcotics trade because there is instability."

Insecurity on the ground in countries like Colombia and Afghanistan "creates the impression that the insecurity is related to crop production, ignoring a more obvious relationship such as the insecurity resulting from drug-trafficking activities," notes a December 2007 policy briefing by the Transnational Institute, a Netherlands-based think tank that advocates for alternatives to forced eradication.

In 1964, when the FARC first appeared in Colombia, there was little coca production to speak of. Likewise in South Asia, it was only with help from Pakistan—and, in particular, that country's shadowy Inter Services Intelligence agency, or I.S.I.—that the Taliban was able to take control of the central government in Kabul in 1996.

A larger problem in Afghanistan is the degree to which the influence of major drug dealers permeates Afghan society. Opium dealers often have direct access to the Karzai government itself. "Indeed, far from enhancing the credibility of the Afghan government, poppy eradication showed up its worst weaknesses," writes Joel Hafvenstein in his book Opium Season.

That weakness is the way in which members of the Karzai government are themselves involved in the narcotics trade, according to Hafvenstein, a former aid worker with Chemonics, a Washington-based firm that was under contract with USAID to promote alternative livelihoods in Afghanistan. In Helmand province, which produced 4,400 metric tons of poppy in 2006, where "virtually every government institution was led by a trafficker," he wrote, "the hypocrisy of the campaign was breathtaking."

The fact that the Karzai government has been dependent on warlords for maintaining stability beyond Kabul is another major factor in the success of the country's drug trade, according to Hafvenstein: Afghan police "were dominated by thugs and traffickers, but as long as they kept their regions more or less quiet, the Kabul government was loath to crack down," he wrote. "President Karzai seemed determined to keep as many power brokers as possible bound to his government."

The Economics of Afghan Poppy

The State Department argues that, contrary to the claims of eradication critics, Afghan farmers do not pursue poppy cultivation because they have no alternatives to make a good living. Department spokeswoman Silverstein points to a United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime report that found there is "no longer a direct linkage between poverty and poppy cultivation."

"Increases in poppy cultivation in recent years reflect a desire to maximize returns," she added, "and poppy is most cultivated in the richest agricultural areas, not the poorest ones."

However, other studies have found little evidence to suggest that farmers who grow poppy in Afghanistan are motivated by greed alone. In fact, according to data generated by the Central Statistics Office of Afghanistan in 2004 and collected by the 2005 National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment, Helmand province reported some of the lowest school enrollment rates for young children and, not surprisingly, one of the highest illiteracy rates. Given the intensity of the fighting in the years since, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit concludes, these factors have likely worsened.

Not unlike in Colombia, the A.R.E.U. found that poverty and insecurity—especially its effects on the availability of transportation—renders legal cash crops "uncompetitive." "There is evidence of an increase in the number of check posts in Helmand province where members of the Afghan National Police, the Afghan National Army, and the insurgents extract payments from those using the roads," its report says.

"In this environment, opium production offers a high-value, low-weight commodity," the A.R.E.U. report states, which "can easily be transported by a fleeing family. In the face of insecurity, it makes little sense for households to cultivate other crops wherever there is potential to do so."

The State Department would like to see poppy prices decrease so the plant no longer offers such an attractive alternative to licit crops, and department officials say eradication can contribute to that goal. Silverstein said: "An effective multi-dimensional eradication policy, combined with robust interdiction and alternative development, has been demonstrated to lower the price of opium."

This approach worries some experts: In Afghanistan, the only credit system in place for the vast majority of farmers is to borrow against opium. And the hazards this poses to peasant poppy farmers, when faced with forced eradication, are serious. "They can be forced into a serf-like relationship," said Vanda Felbab-Brown. "So the more you eradicate, the more you drive the population into debt—and the way out of debt is to grow poppy."

In addition, there is a risk that massive crop elimination, whether by air or on the ground, could actually increase profit margins for Afghan drug traffickers, corrupt officials, and the Taliban. When the Taliban regime lifted a ban on opium poppy in 2001, it saw a windfall. The higher prices the ban created allowed the Taliban to cash in on the poppy it had stockpiled over the previous year.

"Crop eradication also has perverse side effects," says a 2007 policy paper published by the Dialogue on Globalization, a network of think tanks, non-profits, and philanthropists. "While it may reduce the amount of drug immediately available," it would heighten "the price of narcotics through induced scarcity—increasing the value of assets and profits."

Still, the fundamentalist Taliban movement learned a hard lesson from its opium bans. By alienating poppy growers through its edicts, Taliban fighters may have lost a crucial chance to rally public support in the face of American and Northern Alliance attacks that would drive them from power in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. "Had the population not been so greatly antagonized," Felbab-Brown noted, "they would have been more susceptible to mobilization by the Taliban."

The Metrics of Production

Eradication efforts currently underway have made no change in the amount of poppy grown across Afghanistan, according to a report by the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, and the Afghan government's Ministry of Counter Narcotics.

In fact, last year's harvest was the largest on record.

Nationwide, the Afghan Opium Survey 2007 says, 193,000 hectares of opium poppy were cultivated in the 2006-2007 growing season—a 17-percent increase over the previous season, when 165,000 hectares were grown. By contrast, as of mid-2007, just 8,000 hectares, or 20,000 acres, had been destroyed through forced eradication.

The 2007 harvest also represents a near doubling of the crop over 2004-2005 levels, when 104,000 hectares were grown. The 2007 export value of the crop, at $3.1 billion, is equal to almost one-third of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. European demand for Afghan poppy alone has boosted its price to nine times that of wheat.

Not surprisingly, Colombia, where Washington has spent $5.4 billion since 2001, offers a similar cautionary tale, according to Mark Schneider of the International Crisis Group.

In 2001, at the beginning of Plan Colombia, more than 169,000 hectares were under cultivation, he noted. By the next year, that number had fallen to 144,000—only to increase again to 157,000 hectares, leading to the production of 610 metric tons of cocaine in 2006.

Eradication is a strategy that has failed in Colombia and across the Andes, Schneider says. "Basically there was no difference," he said. "The cold, hard reality is, for the last 20 years, the same number of hectares—200,000—have been harvested in the Andean region, because that's what the market demands."

In Colombia, Schneider points to what he calls a high degree of "mobility" when it comes to the growth of coca. "When it comes to cocaine, illicit crops continue to proliferate in Narino, Putumayo, Meta, Buaviare, Vichada, Caqueta, and other departments—regions that have been sprayed for years," he said. "And cultivation now extends throughout the country."

A worst-case scenario in Afghanistan resulting from an expanded eradication campaign would be the wholesale movement of refugees or poppy farmers across Afghanistan's restive, porous frontier region with Pakistan. Indeed, the Taliban and Al Qaeda already have a strong presence there, and such refugees would be vulnerable to recruitment by these extremists.

Possible Ways Forward

In 1998, the United Nations General Assembly held a special session on the world drug problem. The assembly issued a "political declaration" on the need for "comprehensive" drug control. The declaration expressed a concern about "links between illicit drug production, trafficking, and involvement of terrorist groups and transnational and organized crime" and set 2008 as a target date for serious progress in the elimination of consumption, manufacturing, and trafficking.

Next month, during the annual session of the United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs, United Nations officials will debate the last decade's progress toward comprehensive drug control.

Given the situations in Colombia and Afghanistan, they will have a lot to think about.

In Colombia, Schneider believes money should be shifted from eradication toward programs that have really made a difference in the violence there.

"While there is no question that there were some significant non-police/military benefits in the Plan Colombia funding, including strengthening the attorney general's office and support for human rights and alternative development, the reality is that a bare 20 percent of the funds was available for those purposes," he testified before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere in April.

"If there is really going to be an alternative to drug cultivation in Colombia and the Andes," he added, "there needs to be a major joint investment by the countries and the U.S. and other donors and the international financial institutions in reducing rural poverty."

Some have called for a legalization of Afghan opium to create painkillers such as morphine: In cancer care in developed countries, the need for such poppy amounts to some 55 metric tons annually. A licensing system, foreign critics say, could allow Afghan farmers to meet this international demand.

There is precedent for such a system. In the early 1970's in Turkey, after Turkish opium farmers in the south of the country stubbornly refused to abandon their livelihoods following American pressure, Washington eventually gave up and backed a legal trade.

Others say following and shutting down the drug money trail is the most effective way of combating the trade. "Combating money laundering has a far greater impact than the eradication of crops," said the Netherlands-based Transnational Institute in its December report. Citing figures by a Mexican prosecutor, it added, "Eradication has not, for example, prevented the Mexican cartels from laundering up to $10 billion dollars a year in the U.S. banking system."

Many scholars and other observers also believe that American counter-narcotics efforts categorically ignore easier and less costly solutions on the home front, particularly when it comes to rehabilitation.

"The treatment of heavy users is more cost-effective than supply-control programs" such as eradication, a 1994 RAND report, "Controlling Cocaine: Supply Versus Demand Programs," says. "The savings of supply-control programs are smaller than the control costs (an estimated 15 cents on the dollar for source-country control; 32 cents on the dollar for interdiction). In contrast, the savings of treatment programs are larger than the control costs; we estimate that the costs of crime and lost productivity are reduced by $7.46 for every dollar spent on treatment."

Others, more controversially, see the Taliban resurgence as a direct result of American eradication efforts themselves. "The Taliban revival is directly, intimately related to the crop eradication program—it could not have happened if the U.S. was not aggressively destroying crops," Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of the Senlis Council, a Kabul-based think tank researching the issue in Afghanistan, told The Independent in 2006. "How would we react if we were already starving—one-quarter of all Afghan children will die before their fifth birthday—and a foreign army declared its intention to wipe out 70 percent of our economy?"

The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit report notes that there are no quick fixes. "Development interventions take years, not a single growing season, to generate income and public goods."

Some Afghans say it is already too late. "A lot could have been done earlier, but it was not—now the situation has reached a point where we are in a vicious circle," Daoud Sultanzoi, a member of parliament for Ghazni province, told The Guardian last year. "Drugs, bad management, rule of law, poverty, terrorism, and weak government—all of these things have haunted us over the past six years. The international community has poured billions into Afghanistan. But our government is weak and there is corruption at every level."

"We should have revamped our agricultural industry to offset the need for cultivating poppy," he continued. "I am not hopeless about drugs, but I sense hopelessness among many people across the country."

Meanwhile, the State Department is coy when asked about the possibility of American policy deviating from its current emphasis on eradication.

"The United States' counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan is an interagency plan that works in tandem with the Afghan government's efforts and greater reconstruction efforts, of which coalition and NATO forces are a part," said Silverstein. "We work together to find and maintain an effective counter-narcotics strategy that meets the needs and desires of the Afghan government and advances our long term strategies and goals."

From World Politics Review.

Joseph Kirschke is a Washington, D.C., based independent journalist who specializes in coverage of international current affairs.