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The Case Against Incrementalism
A peace deal in Afghanistan may be on the horizon. The latest round of high-level negotiations between the United States and the Taliban ended last week in Doha without a formal agreement, but with cautious optimism on both sides. If the U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, gets the deal he reportedly seeks, all parties in Afghanistan will observe a general cease-fire, the United States will withdraw its forces, the Taliban and the Afghan government will open a dialogue, and the Taliban will pledge to harbor no foreign terrorist organizations on Afghan soil.
These developments are, in theory, encouraging: the United States’ longest war may finally be coming to an end. But in practice, the peace negotiations are unlikely to achieve Washington’s main national security objective in Afghanistan—preventing the formation of a terrorist safe haven—if they do not include a plan to directly address the country’s opium problem.
The Afghan drug economy is thriving. Although the United States has spent almost $9 billion to stem narcotics production over the course of the war, the most recent UN survey reports that opium cultivation in Afghanistan is at its second-highest level since 1994. Largely based in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, along the irrigated shores of the Helmand River, this multibillion-dollar trade has turned the country into the “opium capital of the world.” The industry makes up half of Afghanistan’s GDP and provides roughly 85 percent of the world’s opium.
Most important, the drug trade is a cash cow for terrorists. Its steep profits make up 65 percent of the Taliban’s revenues and line the pockets of several other groups that the U.S. State Department has designated as terrorist organizations. Al Qaeda’s ties to Taliban-owned poppy fields are well documented. The Haqqani network, one of the biggest threats to the NATO mission in Afghanistan, receives its funding from taxes levied on the opium trade. Other regional players, such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, have made billions by allowing drug routes to pass through their territories.
Ending the fight against the Taliban will not solve Afghanistan’s opium problem. It is naive to believe that the Taliban, weakened by significant losses on the battlefield and U.S. strikes against its senior commanders, will be willing or able to keep other groups off the poppy fields. If anything, the power vacuum left behind by a war-weary Taliban will likely draw new terrorist groups to the region. The appeal of large swaths of ungoverned land and a high-margin, illicit cash crop is hard to beat.
Beyond attracting terrorist groups, Afghanistan’s opium trade breeds political corruption among the government officials, warlords, and insurgent groups who compete to control it. By monopolizing the country’s most fertile agricultural arenas, it also creates economic stagnation, further destabilizing the region and leaving the population vulnerable to terrorist infiltration.
The appeal of large swaths of ungoverned land and a high-margin, illicit cash crop is hard to beat.
Put simply, Afghanistan’s terrorism problem cannot be separated from the opium that is its lifeline. A sustainable peace agreement cannot pass this issue over. Any future U.S. negotiations with the Taliban must include a long-term, multilateral counternarcotics strategy that tackles the issue at its political and economic roots.
The U.S. delegation should ask both the Taliban and the Afghan government to prioritize counternarcotics operations in areas where there is active support from local leadership. Recent military campaigns, such as Operation Iron Tempest, have shown that without such support, air strikes and raids on Taliban drug production facilities achieve very little.
On the economic front, U.S. negotiators should work with international organizations to help integrate Afghanistan’s economy into the licit global marketplace. The biggest criticism of U.S. efforts to eradicate opium cultivation in the “Golden Crescent” region has been that much of the rural population depends upon these crops for basic economic sustenance. In 2004, Khalilzad, then the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and Ashraf Ghani, then Afghanistan’s finance minister, both opposed Secretary of State Colin Powell’s aerial defoliation plan, warning that it would likely engender “widespread impoverishment.” A more sustainable strategy would gradually shift Afghanistan’s agricultural output to high-value alternative crops such as rice and tap into the country’s undeveloped mineral resources. It should also support large infrastructure projects that leverage Afghanistan’s fortuitous geographic position at the nexus of global trade routes, such as the planned TAPI pipeline connecting Turkmenistan and India.
Without local support, air strikes and raids on Taliban drug production facilities achieve very little.
In the late 1990s, the Taliban became the only Afghan regime to have successfully banned the cultivation of opium, reducing harvests by 96 percent in a bid for international aid and recognition. The U.S. delegation to the current peace talks should push for another such ban prohibiting both the selling and the cultivation of opium. Simultaneously, the United States should commit to working with regional allies to monitor and counteract trafficking in the region. India, for example, has a particularly strong interest in stabilizing Central Asia given the Taliban’s ties to Pakistani terrorist groups and rising tensions in the Kashmir Valley.
Opium containment is not a detail to be left out of U.S. negotiations with the Taliban. Rather, its inclusion could make the difference between a peace agreement that sticks and one that holds the line only until the next bad actor seizes control of the lucrative drug trade. Colombia provides a pertinent object lesson in this regard. When that country’s 2016 peace accords began to unravel, new terrorist organizations resurged around the cocaine industry. The long-term success of U.S. counterterrorism efforts is thus inseparable from the project of responsibly transitioning a drug-based economy away from its illicit produce. By preventing the funding of terrorism abroad, we thwart its attempts to reach us at home.