Plan For Afghan Poppy Fields Examined

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The U.S.-led offensive in Marjah, Afghanistan, is taking place in a major opium-production center. Seth Jones, a political scientist with the Rand Corp. who was recently in Afghanistan, discusses what's going on with poppy producers and traffickers.


The U.S.-led offensive in Marjah is targeting more than the Taliban. The military is also focused on mid- and senior-level drug traffickers in the region. Marjah's opium production helps supply a nexus of a dozen or so international drug networks that reach into the Far East, Russia and then Europe. It also helps supply the Taliban with a steady flow of cash.

For more on the drive to decapitate the drug trade, we turn now to Seth Jones. He is a political scientist at RAND Corporation. He is also the author of "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan," and he has been advising U.S. officials. Welcome to the program.

Professor SETH JONES (Security Studies Program, Georgetown University; Political Scientist, RAND Corporation): Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: How significant is the opium production in Marjah?

Prof. JONES: Well, opium production in Marjah and more broadly in Helmand is significant. The levels of cultivation of poppy in Helmand province are more than firstly all of Afghanistan combined. In areas like Marjah, we have some of the most significant and largest drug trafficking organization. Government officials are involved from police to district and provincial governors are involved in making money off the drug trade.

NORRIS: So, is the U.S. targeting the drug traffickers or the farmers who grow the poppies? I understand that there has been some debate over that and the question of targeting the farmers because some of them have actually being forced into poppy cultivation.

Prof. JONES: Well, the focus of civilian and military efforts in Afghanistan is population-centric, and that's the phrase that General McChrystal has coined. And part of the problem with targeting farmers including what we call eradication of fields, is it hurts the local population primarily. And they are the ones who are making the least amount of money off of the cultivation and the trafficking of opium. So, in general there has been an effort to target some of the mid- and senior-level drug traffickers, what you might call interdiction, the targeting of labs and other infrastructure that's part of the production, and then the trafficking itself of poppy. And that clearly has been an increase in focus of military forces.

NORRIS: When you're in Afghanistan did you have a chance to talk to any of the poppy farmers?

Prof. JONES: Oh, sure, talked to a range of them. The most interesting thing when you sit down with individuals who grow poppy and you ask them why, couple of things are apparent. One is, I had several individuals say to me, we know it's un-Islamic, but we do it because we're poor Afghans and we can make a lot more money off of poppy than we can growing other vegetables or fruit such as wheat, for example, in the south. So, it's better for our family.

Also we've seen a range of individuals say the Taliban keeps telling us that it's the infidels who use the poppy. You know, it maybe un-Islamic to grow poppy, but it's the infidels in Eastern Europe, Western Europe and the United States, who are ultimately using it in the form of heroin. So, Afghans are not paying a price. The unfortunate reality is that's not true anymore. The number of addicts has significantly increased across Afghanistan. So the population is also feeling the brunt of this.

NORRIS: Just put this into context for us. Is it possible for the U.S. to win the war in Afghanistan, whatever that means, without getting a handle on the drug trade?

Prof. JONES: I think the U.S. can win the war in the sense of curbing the bulk of the insurgency with decreased levels of poppy. The problem, though, is poppy undermines governance in particular. I think actually the biggest problem with poppy is not the funding it gives to insurgent groups, but it's the corruption that it manifests within the central government. And we've seen public opinion polls from organizations like the Asia Foundation which strongly indicate that government involvement in the drug trade has significantly decreased support for the government, which indicates that it is one of several reasons why Afghans are looking away from the government. They have become frustrated by a lack of governance and massive amounts of corruption. I think that's where the drugs actually are most harmful.

NORRIS: Seth Jones, thank you very much. It's been good to talk to you.

Prof. JONES: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: Seth Jones is a political scientist at RAND Corporation. He's also the author of "In the Graveyard of Empires: America's War in Afghanistan."

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