Shift in strategy

The shift in the US’ counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan from one of focus on eradication of the poppy crop to interdiction is welcome. Instead of cracking down on farmers growing poppy, the new strategy will involve targeting drug traffickers and druglords who are linked to the Taliban and are financing and fuelling the insurgency.

Besides, it will involve encouraging farmers to shift away from cultivating poppy to other profitable alternatives. The shift in strategy comes at a time when the US-led coalition is grappling with a resurgent Taliban. It is well known that Afghanistan’s booming poppy crop provides the Taliban with financial sustenance to the tune of roughly $300 million annually. This had prompted the US-led coalition to tackle the growing of poppy in Afghanistan with as much vigour as they pursued the Taliban insurgents. However, this strategy was flawed. It  only served to increase impoverishment of farmers — the weakest and most vulnerable link in the poppy/opium chain pushing the latter to join the ranks of the Taliban. Thus, while the eradication of crops might have reduced the acreage of land under poppy cultivation, it did not reduce the income it provided the Taliban. Neither did it weaken the insurgency.

Afghanistan contributes 90 per cent of the world’s opium. Farmers grow poppy as it is lucrative. Destroying their crops will not deter them from growing poppy and they need to be provided with profitable alternatives. Weaning farmers away from growing poppy is a long process that will require many years of effort involving convincing farmers, providing them with seeds, irrigation facilities and help with marketing. It would require investing in cold-storage facilities so that farmers can switch to growing grapes and strawberries without fearing their produce will rot and also improving roads so that they can take their harvest to markets quickly. In short, it requires rural development.

Simultaneously, drug traffickers should be taken to task. There is a danger that action will be taken only against drug traffickers aligned to the Taliban, even as those with links to the government will be allowed to ply their trade. This might weaken the Taliban-linked drug network but it could threaten the Afghan state. Action against drug traffickers irrespective of their political links or ideological affiliations is essential for the success of the new strategy.

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