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Obama's Afghan Mistake

5:47 PM, Mar 27, 2009 • By THOMAS DONNELLY
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"It is the most wasteful and ineffective program I have seen in 40 years."

That is how Richard Holbrooke once described the Bush administration's counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan. And even if one allows for the Holbrookian propensity to exaggeration and bombast, the ambassador had a good point. The addiction to eradication -- the president had declared himself to be "a spray man" -- confounded efforts to conduct a counterinsurgency campaign.

And so it was slightly jarring to hear President Obama, in outlining his broader Afghanistan strategy this morning, mention the need for an expanded counternarcotics program. The drug trade "undermines the economy" and "fuels the insurgency," he said.

While the full details and costs of the revitalized counternarcotics program are not yet clear, Yochi Dreazen reported in this morning's Wall Street Journal the effort will be ambitious. The "counternarcotics offensive" will be focused in the Helmand River valley -- not just the main source of the opium trade but a hotbed of the insurgency -- and on providing "alternative livelihoods" to poppy cultivation. Under this plan, reports Dreazen,

U.S. or Afghan forces will first offer Afghan farmers free wheat see to replace their crops that produce opium. If farmers refuse, U.S. or Afghan personnel will burn their fields, then again offer them free replacement seeds. A senior U.S. military official described the approach as a "carrot, stick, carrot" effort.

This is an anodyne description of what promises to be a genuinely bold stroke. Helmand province, along with Kandahar just to the east, is by far the highest incidence of insurgent attacks in Afghanistan. The British forces who have been fighting intensely there since 2006 will also be increased from 8,000 to about 10,000, and Helmand will be a focus of many of the additional U.S. troops to be deployed under the Obama plan. Tackling the drug trade problem simultaneously -- and Helmand accounts for about half the total Afghan poppy crop -- surely means that the levels of violence will skyrocket.

The tactic of providing alternative livelihoods, particularly substituting wheat for poppies, is hardly a guarantee of counterinsurgency success, as Holbrooke himself once made plain:

Everyone talks about "alternative livelihoods" and alternative crops as the solution to the drug problem. This is true in theory -- but this theory has been tried elsewhere with almost no success. Poppies are an easy crop to grow and are far more valuable than any other product that can be grown in the rocky, remote soil of most of Afghanistan. Without roads, it is hard to get heavier (and less valuable) crops to market -- and what market is there, anyway? It will take years to create the networks of roads, markets and lucrative crops that would induce farmers to switch, especially when government officials, including some with close ties to the presidency, are protecting the drug trade and profiting from it.

And finally, the drug trade is a very flexible and fungible one -- it is the prurest form of capitalism. Again, Holbrooke knows the problems. "It hasn't hurt the Taliban one iota," he once said in criticizing the Bush anti-drug plan, "because whatever money they're getting from the drugs trade, they get whatever they need whether we reduce the acreage or not."