Last week in Budapest, NATO defense ministers declared war against the $4 billion illegal opium industry in Afghanistan. In a U.S.-driven move, ISAF troops will target the high end of the drugs industry-the heroin laboratories and the traffickers-in an effort to cut off the cash flowing to the Taliban insurgency.
Advocates presented this decision as a "tactical adjustment." But in fact it marks an attempt to militarize our way out of the narcotics problem in Afghanistan. At a time when troops on the ground are stretched thin and the coalition is losing the battle for Afghan hearts and minds, such a radical shift in policy could prove to be NATO's mission-too-far.
No foreign army has ever succeeded in a counternarcotics effort of this kind. Drugs are fundamentally economic and law enforcement issues. At best, military force has made only a marginal impact, and in most cases, it has been counterproductive. Thailand, Burma and, to a lesser extent, Colombia succeeded in eliminating or gaining partial control of their drug trades only after decades of sustained political and economic development efforts. But Thailand, for one, had to offer its farmers a five-year amnesty to switch from illegal to legitimate crops.
And, the idea that some ISAF troops-mostly American, British, Canadian and Dutch-could engage only in "surgical interdiction strikes" against heroin labs and trafficking networks is more rhetorical than realistic. These facilities are embedded in a complex local environment, and any attacks will likely involve collateral damage. At a time when NATO is already struggling to minimize the civilian casualties of the coalition's air strikes, can it afford to engage in such a risky venture?
This new strategy is based on a flawed analysis of the Taliban's links to the drug trade. In 2007, Afghanistan produced 93 percent of the world's opium, almost all of which originated from the region where the Taliban insurgency is at its fiercest-Helmand Province. For the proponents of this new approach, this is no geographic coincidence but the clearest sign that narcotics have become a full-fledged part of the insurgency. According to the UN, insurgents extract an estimated $100 million a year from the drug trade, which they use to buy weapons and explosive devices to attack Afghan and international troops. In exchange, the Taliban facilitates and encourages the development of the drugs business in the districts they control.
To senior U.S. officials, drugs and the Taliban are now so intertwined that they should be addressed as a single threat. But with limited policing capacity and systemic corruption, the Afghan authorities have been unable and unwilling to break this nexus. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe U.S. General John Craddock have relentlessly argued that NATO, the only effective force on the ground, has a moral and security imperative to fight the opium industry, to protect its troops and weaken the insurgency.
Undoubtedly, the Taliban profits from opium. They are connected, but the Taliban and the drug trade are driven by different factors. The Taliban extracts revenues from a wide range of sources, including smuggling, taxes on road transport, donations from religious groups in Pakistan and the Gulf, and even control over marble mines. The opium boom in southern Afghanistan has occurred only in the last few years, thanks to lawlessness and a conflict economy, while the insurgency had already started to reconstitute itself there in 2002.
Eastern Afghanistan is one of the insurgents' most active grounds, but poppy production there is falling. The Taliban's return owes less to opium and more to multiple strategic failures: a combination of the U.S. shift to Iraq, Europe's wavering commitment to securing rule of law, and the Afghan government's failure to integrate its southern Pashto communities into the new government and the economy.
Ultimately, the drug trade is a problem that only the Afghans, with the help of their neighbors and allies, can solve-not the other way around. NATO's heavy-handed involvement is unlikely to deal anything like a fatal blow to the Taliban insurgency. It will, however, make the work of the British troops in Helmand Province more dangerous, and jeopardize reconstruction efforts as a whole. The Afghan government will lose any incentive to tackle its own drug-fueled institutional corruption, and as NATO operations kill more civilians, American allies' already flagging commitment to the country will founder even further.
Today in Afghanistan, NATO is still struggling to win the war on terror. It shouldn't be jumping to start a war on drugs.
Fabrice Pothier is director of Carnegie Europe.