Afghanistan’s Drug Habit

By Joel Hafvenstein, an international development consultant, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Opium Season.” (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 20/09/06):

AS if there hadn’t been enough bad news from Afghanistan of late, now the country’s drug dependency is back in the headlines. On Sept. 2, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that the shattered country is now producing 92 percent of the world’s supply of illegal opium, up from 87 percent in 2004. This deplorable new record will not be reversed by more belligerent counternarcotics measures. Instead, America, NATO and the Afghan government must reform a vital but neglected institution: the local police.

In 2004, for the first time in history, farmers in every province of Afghanistan chose to cultivate opium poppies. The American and Afghan governments promised a major poppy eradication campaign. Aid agencies scrambled to create an economic alternative for the thousands of Afghans who depended on poppy farming to survive.

Thus in November 2004, I traveled to Lashkargah, the capital of Helmand Province, the opium heartland of Afghanistan, as the deputy leader of an “alternative livelihoods” project financed by the United States Agency for International Development. Our core team was made up of six Western aid workers, and we hired some 80 Afghan staff members.

In the long-term plan, alternative livelihoods meant helping Afghan farmers export high-value crops like saffron and cumin. It meant restoring the orchards and vineyards that had once made Afghanistan a power in the raisin and almond markets. It meant providing credit to farmers who had relied on traffickers for affordable loans.

In the short run, however, with the first eradication tractors already plowing up poppy fields, we had no time for those approaches. Instead, we created public-works jobs. Like a New Deal agency, we handed out shovels to thousands of local Afghans and paid them $4 per day to repair canals and roads. We found plenty of work on Helmand’s grand but dilapidated irrigation system, a legacy of early cold-war American aid. By May 2005, we had paid out millions of dollars and had some 14,000 men on the payroll simultaneously. The program buoyed the provincial economy, and would have made a fine launching pad for long-term alternatives to poppy.

Security was our Achilles’ heel. There was a new American military base by the graveyard on the edge of town, but the few score Iowa National Guard members there lacked the manpower and the local knowledge to protect us. We could not afford the professional security companies in Kabul, most run by brash veterans of Western militaries. Then, just before Christmas, some of our engineers were carjacked. We resorted to the only remaining source of protection: the provincial police.

We soon found that at their best, the Helmand police forces were half-organized militias with charismatic leadership and years of combat experience. At their worst, the policemen were bandits, pederasts and hashish addicts. Our local guard captain was one of the better ones, but he was still far from reliable.

Once I asked him what he earned as a district police commander. “The governor paid us no salary,” he curtly replied. “The people gave us money. To thank us for solving their problems.” I was never sure if we were paying him enough to solve our problems.

When the attacks came, our security was useless. On May 18, five of our Afghan staff members were murdered in the field. The next morning, one of the funeral convoys was ambushed, leaving six more of our workers and their relatives dead. The police responded with indiscriminate arrests and bluster, but they lacked the investigative skills to catch the killers.

We heard rumors that the attackers were Taliban troops — and indeed, the attacks were harbingers of the Taliban resurgence that Helmand has seen in the last year. We also heard that the Taliban had been paid by local drug barons to attack our project. All we knew was that we were targets, and that we could not protect ourselves. Within days, we had stopped all our projects and most of the staff went home.

To reduce Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation, Western governments must keep their focus on improving security. Aid agencies and the Afghan government cannot foster alternatives to opium while under fire. In chaotic times, Afghan farmers are more likely to plant poppy, which offers the surest and highest returns on investment. Some remote areas of Afghanistan have grown poppy since the time of Alexander the Great, but in the irrigated plains of Helmand it caught on only during the breakdown of order in the 1980’s. With security restored, the farmers of Helmand could rebuild their province and return to licit crops.

Local police forces are the weakest link in Afghanistan’s security net. After the fall of the Taliban, the United States and NATO put most of their energy into building a professional Afghan Army. The police forces were essentially surrendered to local warlords — not through any malign plan, but by lack of money and attention.

Most Afghan policemen have now gone through a basic training course run by American and German police officers, but they return to units that are ill equipped, badly organized, founded on personal loyalty to a commander and accountable to no one.

The 4,500 British troops now fighting alongside Afghan soldiers in Helmand can defeat insurgents who muster in large numbers, but they cannot counter the Taliban’s shrewder tactics — urban ambushes, suicide bombings and strikes on “soft” civilian targets like our project. For that, the police are necessary.

The Afghan Army and foreign powers must create space in which a professional, accountable police force can take root. This means continued military action against large Taliban incursions, diplomatic pressure on Pakistan to stop providing a haven for insurgents, and a focus on shielding the large cities of southern Afghanistan — Lashkargah, Kandahar and Ghazni — long enough for the Afghan government to establish the kernels of an improved police force there. It will also require an end to the impunity enjoyed by warlords and major traffickers, who can order an attack safe in the knowledge that the Taliban will be blamed.

The new Afghan police force needs clear lines of authority, formal disciplinary procedures and methods for internal oversight and public complaint. The officers need adequate pay and equipment, which can come only from Western sources, and better training in investigation and civilian protection. To ensure that all this makes a difference, the United States and its allies must commit experienced Western police officers to field-based mentoring programs with provincial police forces.

The poppy boom won’t be solved by police reform alone, of course. The Afghan government must purge drug kingpins from the federal and provincial governments, and continue disarming militias (friendly as well as hostile).

Nothing has cost President Hamid Karzai more popularity in the south than the sense that unscrupulous gunmen are back in control. Security was the Taliban’s main selling point when it took control of the country in the 1990’s; it could be again.