There is a robust poppy eradication campaign in Helmand and it is the single most destructive and predatory thing being done to the population.
Both the US and Britain would be well-served by an honest assessment of our collective shortcomings in addressing the scourge of poppy farming and the opium trade in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. As a U.S. Army civilian employee, I worked in Helmand alongside British troops in 2010-11 and am one of a small number of people who has conducted field research to assess the impact of counter-narcotics programs on the population in Helmand. Unfortunately, Sean Rayment’s article in the Telegraph – ‘Why Britain’s pledge to end Afghanistan’s deadly heroin trade has failed’ – is riddled with factual inaccuracies and a dated view of counter-narcotics policies and programs in Afghanistan. For Rayment, the answer to the question posed in the headline is simple (and strongly implied, but never directly stated): People growing poppy are the enemy and their crops must be eradicated, but we haven’t done this. He reports:
When asked why poppy fields aren’t destroyed, given that they represent almost the sole source of the Taliban’s income, most officers simply say: “It isn’t our problem”.
I never met a British officer who was so blithe about the poppy problem, but that aside, Rayment bemoans the lack of an eradication program when, in fact, there has been one in place for years. And it has been an utter failure.
In fact, there is no greater failure in Afghanistan than the counter-narcotics effort. It represents every contradiction of Western policy and strategy, every facet of Western hubris, and all of the elements of the civil-military divide that has plagued the campaign.
Contrary to what Rayment suggests, Western troops and civilians in Helmand have been involved in poppy eradication. Task Force Helmand and US Marine Regimental Combat Teams have long ceased their involvement in eradication because, as many predicted, eradication swelled the ranks of the Taliban and led to more dead soldiers.
The civilian agencies, however, have stayed in the game at great cost to the campaign. For the past few years, the British-led Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team has partnered with the provincial government in Helmand to fund and manage an Afghan-‘led’ poppy eradication effort. This program, designed and funded by the PRT, the United States Agency for International Development, and the United Nations, has aimed at dis-incentivizing poppy cultivation through wiping out some fields in order to provide a credible threat and push farmers toward planting wheat and other crops – for which they are given seeds. These agencies have purchased eradication tractors for the Afghan National Police and set them loose on the population.
Contrary to the United Nation’s own reporting, this program has been an abysmal failure.
Eradication only destroys 3% of the province’s total crop and does not create a credible threat. The crops meant to substitute for poppy are simply not nearly as profitable. Many farmers who have lost their poppy to Afghan police eradication tractors one year have chosen to plant poppy again in the next.
Funds continue to flow to the insurgency. Even if we could somehow eradicate more than half of Helmand’s poppy, drugs would still make their way to British streets. Afghanistan produces an estimated three times the annual global poppy demand for heroin. And the 3% of the province’s crop that is eradicated is concentrated in the ‘green zone’ of the Helmand River Valley – the key terrain we have been trying to win over. Most of these farmers are terribly poor. They are not making a fortune from poppy. It merely helps them get through the year in a harsh, war-torn land.
So what is the point of eradication? What is its primary purpose; its raison d’être? No one can answer this question, but it is still somehow called a success by the United Nations and the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT).
Eradication has succeeded in one area: destroying the lives of these rural families who depend on their meager profits from poppy. As one farmer remarked, ‘If somebody takes away your water on a hot day, what do you do?’
But the PRT ignores this and they do so quite easily. The people in charge of running the counter-narcotics campaign are rarely, if ever, permitted to leave the confines of Lashkar Gah City and assess the fruits of their labor. Those who have systematically researched the impact of these programs in Helmand’s rural, contested areas, including people like David Mansfield and me, have come to the same conclusion: the eradication effort isn’t effective. It ruins lives.
This is the ultimate irony: In a campaign premised (rightly or wrongly) on the idea of alleviating the grievances of the population and winning its ‘hearts and minds,’ the single most damaging thing being done to Afghans is a Western and UN-funded crop eradication program.
The low-level poppy farmers who suffer the most from eradication are not evil men and drug pushers. More recent efforts to target the real ‘bad guys’ – drug cartels and large traffickers in Afghanistan and the larger region – have borne some fruit, but in terms of starving the insurgency of its narcotics funds, it is ‘too little, too late.’ If this is a drug war, we have lost.
Ryan Evans is a Research Fellow at the Center for National Policy