The Poppy and the Taliban

From the September 2006 Trumpet Print Edition

Afghanistan is devolving into one of America’s worst geopolitical nightmares. Part of the reason is visible in the thriving opium poppy fields that pepper its landscape.

Illegal drugs presently account for more than half of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. Afghanistan is the world’s number-one heroin producer and trafficker; more than 90 percent of the world’s opium comes from this one nation.

These facts are especially troubling when you consider the massive amounts of time, money and military manpower that the United States, Britain and nato have invested into solving this problem. Western officials have allotted more than $1 billion to eradicating Afghanistan’s hills of opium—and still, 2006 is expected to see the largest-ever opium crop.

If Afghanistan’s poppy producers can be so successful in spite of the more than 20,000 nato troops, the sky is the limit should these soldiers ever leave. How is it that, despite such a strong military presence, opium production is at its highest level ever? Just ask the Taliban.

Across the country, Taliban fighters and the nation’s poppy growers and drug smugglers are striking up mutually beneficial relationships. Facing pressure from the government and American forces to eradicate their poppy crops—their livelihood—drug smugglers and poppy farmers are increasingly relying on Taliban militants for protection. In return for services rendered, Taliban militants receive money to finance their operations (which include supporting al Qaeda and killing American, British and nato forces).

The rise in opium production is a clear sign of the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Organized Taliban fighters are cropping up across the nation, especially in the south and the east. Other than Kabul, the capital, and a few other major cities where Western forces primarily dwell, the government of Hamid Karzai has tenuous control at best. Dealing decisively with the Taliban is critical in this situation. Karzai is being called the “mayor of Kabul” because of his lack of control over territory outside of the capital.

By seeking to eradicate Afghanistan’s opium production without dealing decisively with the Taliban, American and nato forces will never solve the drug problem posed by this nation. Dealing with the Taliban is central to regaining stability in Afghanistan. “Even supporters of the war on drugs need to wake up and smell the coffee. … The anti-drug effort needs to be put on the back burner at least until we can fight off the Taliban and al Qaeda forces” (Asia Times, July 11).

With the U.S. gaining little traction against the Taliban, we can expect the rugged Afghan hills to be filled with opium poppies—the dangerous crop that puts dollars in Talibani pockets—for some time to come.