Why Washington's War on Drugs in Afghanistan Isn't Working

It's time to turn conventional wisdom upside down. Fighting drugs is not a precondition for security. On the contrary, security is a necessary condition for curbing drugs.
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After twelve years and more than $6 billion, the "war on drugs" in Afghanistan is no closer to victory than the war against the Taliban. Since 2001, the acreage cultivated with opium poppies has doubled. Last year the country produced an estimated 82 percent of the world's opium. The more NATO spends, the more drugs get produced.

That's because current drug enforcement efforts are crippled by a basic misunderstanding. American policy makers wrongly believe that winning the drug war in Afghanistan is a precondition to winning the larger war against the Taliban, which diverts profits from the trade to finance its insurgency.

Said William Brownfield, the State Department's top narcotics officer, "if you do not address the drug issue you will not succeed in the other security, stability, democracy, prosperity objectives you are aiming for [in Afghanistan]."

But as NATO commanders are painfully aware, sending troops to suppress drug cultivation in the midst of a civil war is a losing proposition. Peasants whose crops are threatened turn to the Taliban for protection, willingly paying war taxes to safeguard their meager livelihood. Meanwhile, corrupt government officials at every level take advantage of the country's disorder to protect major traffickers. The result is more drug production and stronger support for insurgents.

It's time to turn conventional wisdom upside down. Fighting drugs is not a precondition for security. On the contrary, security is a necessary condition for curbing drugs.

Summarizing their years of local research, agronomists David Mansfield and Adam Pain declare, "Evidence from the field shows that the growth of the opium poppy economy is the outcome and not the cause of state and development failure in Afghanistan."

That observation finds support from other drug-linked conflicts. International conflict expert Ekaterina Stepanova notes in the journal Perspectives on Terrorism that the previous world leader in opium production, Myanmar (Burma), only tamed its drug production starting in the mid-1990s after a phased program of "interim ceasefire agreements with the multiple insurgencies in drug-producing areas, followed by increased state access and security and then renegotiated settlements introducing much stricter counter-narcotics provisions."

An even better example is Lebanon, long a major world producer of heroin and hashish. After settling its devastating 15-year civil war with the 1989 Taif Agreement, rival militia groups no longer needed to traffic drugs to finance the war. The end of hostilities set the stage for Syrian-assisted drug enforcement and crop substitution programs in Lebanon's once lawless Bekaa Valley.

By 1996 the State Department was able to report that "Lebanon appears to have won the fight against illicit crop cultivation due to the joint Lebanese-Syrian eradication efforts since 1992," a rare and impressive accomplishment in the history of supply-side drug policy.

The Taif Agreement was notable in two respects that bear on Afghanistan's current crisis. First, it didn't solve all of Lebanon's political or social issues, but it did provide a face-saving opportunity for rival militia to put down their arms and give the country a chance to rebuild.

Second, it involved several regional powers, including Saudi Arabia and Syria, thus giving them a stake in maintaining the peace, Together they overcame their mutual antipathy to push a settlement on Lebanon's armed factions.

History suggests that Afghanistan's drug problem will similarly become manageable only if the warring parties first reach a political settlement that permits the rebuilding of political institutions and domestic security.

Such a settlement will inevitably require meaningful power sharing with the Taliban -- not the kind of surrender suggested by President Obama in May when he offered them a place at the table only if they first "renounce violence and abide by Afghan laws."

Second, a settlement will undoubtedly require the buy-in, and thus the full participation, of regional powers including Pakistan and Iran. America will have to overcome its animosity toward both long enough to give peace a chance.

There's really no other choice. Just as the current Afghanistan war is unsustainable, so is its war on drugs. Dealing with both, indeed dealing with either, will require much more serious commitment to compromise, inclusion, and coexistence than Washington has yet demonstrated.

Jonathan Marshall is the author of three books on the international drug traffic, including most recently 'The Lebanese Connection: Corruption, Civil War, and the International Drug Trade' (Stanford University Press, 2012).

This post is part of the HuffPost Shadow Conventions 2012, a series spotlighting three issues that are not being discussed at the national GOP and Democratic conventions: The Drug War, Poverty in America, and Money in Politics.

HuffPost Live will be taking a comprehensive look at America's failed war on drugs August 28th and September 4th from 12-4 pm ET and 6-10 pm ET. Click here to check it out -- and join the conversation.

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