Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Where Empires go to Die

It has become a truism that Afghanistan is proving to be as intractable a problem for the United States as it was for the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and many empires before. McClatchy reports that the majority of the additional 17,000 troops to be dispatched to Afghanistan will be slated for deployment to Helmand province and will be tasked with taking on poppy growers. While I do not echo Juan Cole’s strident assessment that the current Afghan insurgency is due to ISAF efforts to eradicate poppies, it is a terrible mistake to believe that poppy eradication will substantially improve security efforts in Afghanistan.

Indeed, poppy eradication will likely exacerbate the current insurgency and work to further destabilize Afghanistan. While there is little doubt that the sale of poppies and their conversion into opiates funds the insurgency, their growth and their harvest form the livelihood of many rural Afghan farmers. It is the most profitable crop those farmers can raise. The only effect of forcibly eradicating the poppies will be the destruction of those farmers’ livelihoods which will inevitably lead to their alienation from the United States, NATO and the Afghan government, and their embracing the Taliban.

Rather than forcibly eradicating the poppy crop, NATO should approach this problem with a mixture of carrots and sticks. First, NATO must position itself to act as competitor-buyer to the Taliban for the coming year’s poppy crop. NATO should out-bid the Taliban and offer to provide seed and subsidies or inflated purchase prices to farmers to produce alternative crops next year – prices should be inflated with a view towards making alternative crops substantially more profitable per acre than poppies. Simply disrupting production is foolish and works cross-purposes with our ultimate goals in Afghanistan. This commitment to incentivizing the production of alternative crops or livelihoods must be long-term and systemic; while we must be wary of having an entire nation on the dole that risk is substantially less threatening than either aggravating the insurgency or allowing the Taliban access to funds while dumping heroin on the world market.

Second, if the purchasing of this year’s poppy crop is successful the Taliban will not sit idly by. There will be serious attempts to intimidate and compel farmers to continue growing poppies. The likely Taliban reaction will require a heavy, protective NATO presence in poppy producing regions like Helmand.

Afghanistan poses a difficult challenge to the United States and, as the situation in Pakistan continues to devolve, Afghanistan is becoming ever more intractable. The imperative to act, and to act quickly, is a good one, however to act – even in a localized way – without considering the obvious ramification is to needlessly exacerbate an already dreadful situation.

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