Afghanistan officials question drug-eradication, nomination

Afghan officials in Washington are redoubling their advocacy efforts to capitalize on Congress and the Bush administration’s renewed focus on their country — and to prevent their country from slipping back into Taliban hands.

Afghan officials in Washington are redoubling their advocacy efforts to capitalize on Congress and the Bush administration’s renewed focus on their country — and to prevent their country from slipping back into Taliban hands.

Embassy officials are calling the Bush administration’s drug-eradication policy in Afghanistan a flawed solution to the problem and are speculating on how a new U.S. ambassador to their country will influence the struggle against the narcotics trade and how the U.S. will change the management of foreign aid there.

“It is a mistake to think that you will solve the drug issue through spraying” the poppy cultures, a counselor at the embassy, Masood Aziz, said. “If you start spraying you lose the hearts and minds of the population. Spraying has devastating effects on the poor.”

Similarly, a London-based drug-policy research group, the Senlis Council, has reported that drug eradication by itself ruins small farmers and drives them toward the Taliban who, in turn, provide loans and protection.

While rushing to counter such policies, the embassy is watching closely William Wood’s nomination to become the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan. Wood previously served as U.S. ambassador to Colombia.

“We hope that with the new ambassador the focus won’t be the wrong focus,” Aziz said, implying that the strategies of the Colombian war on drugs would fail in Afghanistan.

Poppies, which have been a more lucrative cash crop than wheat or other alternatives, sustain about 2 million small farmers and their families, in a country with a population of about 31 million.

Without offering alternative sources of income and long-term assistance to poppy growers, Afghanistan could be hard-pressed to kick its drug problem. Some estimate that nearly 50 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from poppy cultures.

Afghan officials want to influence how the narcotics trade is fought, and seek to ensure that international aid is spent effectively, which so far has proved a challenge.

Attaining, or even defining, success in Afghanistan is a tall order, acknowledged Ashraf Haidari, a political counselor at the Embassy of Afghanistan.

“We need time and resources,” he said. “We do not want 70 percent of Afghan people to be farmers. It may take up to 30 years to rid Afghanistan of its drug problem and institute alternative livelihood,” he explained.

Assistance has to be spread across all regions, not only given to those who rely on narcotics for their livelihood. Already, citizens of regions that did not grow poppy in other years have started to do so because they had no other support, Haidari said.

Afghanistan also considers developing government capacity critical to quashing the narcotics trade and building up the country.

To that end, officials are eyeing the reauthorization of the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act of 2002 in hopes that aid can be channeled to build up the Afghanistan’s now-minimal governmental capacity. The country has no effective judicial establishment and weak law enforcement, Haidari said.

“The face of the government is the judicial system,” he added.

Afghanistan’s advocacy is not falling on deaf ears in Congress.

House Foreign Affairs chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) has expressed keen interest in reauthorizing titles I and II of the Afghanistan Freedom Support Act, which address assistance and security for the country. The reauthorization could increase focus on drug interdiction and destruction, according to sources.

“Counter-narcotics is absolutely an issue that is fundamental to change the society in Afghanistan,” a congressional source said. 

The House and the Senate Foreign Relations Committees together soon will discuss a comprehensive strategy for Afghanistan, the aide added.

The source said Congress will consider a much more “holistic” approach on Afghanistan, but ultimately it is the administration’s call to implement it.

“We are sensitive to over-legislating and over-prescribing because that would encumber the administration, but we want to pressure the administration,” the source said.

While the Bush administration has a five-tier plan for Afghanistan, partly focused on fostering alternative livelihoods, it has primarily concentrated on building roads and infrastructure, the congressional source said.

The rationale is “we are building roads because where the road ends the Taliban begins,” the source said. “But that is not to say that if you build infrastructure the Taliban will go away.”

Haidari takes a similar view. “Afghanistan is singular in all its problem and needs a singular solution,” he said. “Afghanistan is a country that we need to start building from scratch.”

But to do that officials there want to ensure funds are spent on the right priorities.

“We are certainly extremely appreciative of the money allocated and committed, but the issue of the money not being effectively spent is a tremendous problem,” Aziz said, adding that Afghanistan will need about $30 billion in aid over the next seven to 10 years. The United States alone has given $14 billion to Afghanistan since 2001.

While the disbursement rate of the money has been steady, if often has not reached the targeted beneficiaries through the Afghani government and other institutions.

Channeled instead through non-governmental organizations and contractors, overhead absorbed most of the money. Only a fraction actually reached the country, Haidari said.

“We want to see results,” Haidari said. “We want action not just words. The problems in Iraq make Afghanistan look like a success, but Afghan lives have not changed.”

Afghanistan’s pitch to Capitol Hill may come at a critical time. The embassy’s priorities, which could shore up support for the government, fall against the backdrop of the possibility of a renewed Taliban offensive this spring. U.S. and international forces are expanding in preparation for potential attacks.

Poverty has helped to boost Taliban ranks. The radical Islamic movement lately has been able to recruit new fighters — including those who do not believe in its mission, according to Haidari — by offering to pay about $300 a month to support their families versus a per capita income of roughly $300 per year.