After 31 years of violence in Afghanistan, the opium poppy crop remains one of the few reliable sources of income for poor Afghan farmers. It is unrealistic to expect them to give up poppy cultivation without providing them an alternate way of generating enough income.In the past, Afghan farmers have generally complied with the numerous government efforts to ban poppy production. There has been a tacit understanding among farmers, however, that the government would provide substantial support to help the transition away from poppy production. Yet, promises of support have not been kept, prompting a rapid rise in poppy cultivation.To break this cycle of hope and frustration, changes need to be made. From 2001 to late 2008, international efforts mostly focused on forced eradication of poppy crops, which merely targets the effects of poppy production, not its underlying causes. International experience proves that eradication in isolation is ineffective. Decreases in cultivation in one area can simply lead to increases in another, and news of impending eradication efforts can provoke growers to disperse cultivation over a larger area, much like investors diversifying portfolios to hedge risk. Counter-narcotics efforts must be enacted concurrently across the country in a strategic manner.Above all else, farmers must be given the opportunity and necessary resources to grow alternative crops. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most Afghan farmers are sharecroppers, whose landlords dictate what they can grow. Consequently, the high-value opium poppy tends to be the crop of choice.Giving farmers more freedom requires that they have access to both land and alternative financing, such as widely available micro-lending. In addition, to make alternative crops more lucrative to farmers, investments in infrastructure are needed. Beyond reliable access to water supplies, as well as seed and fertilizer, farmers need more efficient ways to get their produce to market, including better roads and cold-storage facilities. Today, Afghanistan lacks a well-maintained road system, and only about 10 percent of the population has access to reliable electricity.Once effective alternatives are available, farmers could begin to transition away from poppy cultivation without paying a financial penalty. An initial grace period could be extended, beyond which noncompliant farmers would face crop eradication and criminal prosecution.To be effective, counter-narcotics efforts must target all players in the long chain of the opium trade, including traffickers, distributors and dealers, who pull in about 80 percent of the export value of Afghan narcotics. Essential to the prosecution of these kingpins is a functional justice sector, with coordinated law enforcement and judicial activities. Inadequate compensation, training and equipment currently limit the ability of the Afghan law enforcement officers and judges from effectively combating this threat.The international community recognizes these shortcomings. Since June 2007 when the international community held its first Conference on Rule of Law in Afghanistan in Rome, attention and resources have doubled for strengthening the country's judicial institutions. But security concerns continue to shortchange the implementation of much-needed reforms in the formal justice sector.Even with improved governance in the country, the expanding global demand for Afghan drugs allows trans-national drug traffickers to undermine the rule of law in the absence of coordinated prosecution and enforcement efforts in Afghanistan, its neighbors and consumer countries. Proactive regional cooperation is needed to implement the United Nations Security Council resolution 1818 of July 2008 to curb the flow of precursor chemicals into Afghanistan, as well as the export of narcotics out of the country.The tenets of Islam, Afghan culture and the Afghan legal system all prohibit the production, consumption and trafficking of drugs. Poor Afghan farmers would honor these tenets right away if they were given a legal and viable option to do so. Poppy cultivation has continued to decline by about 20 percent over the past few years, but this success is prone to a quick reversal unless Afghanistan and its nation-partners deliver an effective combination of carrots to poor sharecroppers, along with sticks to drug traffickers.The international community must redouble their counter-narcotics efforts on the global and regional levels. Countries on the consumption end of the Afghan drug chain should focus on reducing demand. At the same time, they must join with transit countries and Afghanistan to cooperate against drug traffickers and to dismantle their vertically integrated market mechanisms, from production to retail distribution.And to enforce the provisions of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the international community must deliver on their collective responsibility to help provide Afghanistan with long-term law enforcement and alternative development resources to eliminate drugs in the country, and to end its adverse impact on international public health.
M. Ashraf Haidari is a longtime observer and analyst of international efforts to eliminate drugs in Afghanistan; he works with the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington, DC.