The war in Afghanistan conjures up many images in the minds of most Americans — the Taliban holding AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades, Osama bin Laden training in the mountains, American soldiers patrolling the harsh landscape and, of course, the numerous explosions.
But there seems to be one image that most Americans do not think of — one which perhaps is even more important to understand in order to win the war than the ones mentioned above: the image of poppy fields producing opium in the Afghan countryside.
Earlier this month, the United Nations released a report indicating that Afghan drug cartels are on the rise and that many insurgents are becoming “narco-cartels” similar to those operating in Colombia. The report also stated that these groups sell narcotics simply for profit.
Most of the insurgency in the country is funded by the opium trade. The multimillion-dollar illegal business is one of the largest in the world and is also responsible for much of the corruption plaguing the current Afghan government. Afghanistan supplies close to 90 percent of the world’s opium demand. A strong attempt to stop the opium trade, or at least reduce it, should therefore lead to a national drop in terrorism.
It is both ironic and hypocritical that the Taliban, along with other extremist Islamic groups, emphasize their strict following of the Koran while taking part in the opium trade — the Koran specifically bans Muslims from using or giving any form of intoxicant.
American and NATO troops began an intense campaign over the past year to specifically target the spread of opium as a means to decrease the number of terrorist attacks. The UN report mentioned above noted that these counter-drug efforts were somewhat successful as opium production went down by 10 percent and the amount of land used to make opium declined by 22 percent over the last year. It is too early to tell, however, if the counter-drug measures brought a reduction in terrorist attacks.
The report, however, also mentioned a dangerous trend occurring in the Afghan drug trade: drug stockpiling. According to the report, at least 10,000 tons of opium are secretly being stored in the nation — an amount that could supply the world’s demand for the next two years.
This stockpiling of opium is particularly dangerous because it can serve as a reserve money source for terrorists needing to purchase weapons or other materials quickly. It basically guarantees terrorists a certain amount of spending money that could potentially be used against targets in the West or in Afghanistan.
The biggest fear for American troops in Afghanistan is that this stockpiled drug money could be used to increase the brutality and frequency of terrorist attacks in the country. Already, the nation is struggling to survive and a sudden wave of powerful attacks could severely hurt the country’s effort to bring stability to its people. The drugs could also be used to purchase a nuclear weapon, but most experts say the drugs will probably be used sparingly and left more as a backup source of money.
As mentioned earlier, the actual production of opium in the country is declining slightly — a sign that American and NATO counter-drug operations are working. In order to continue this trend, it is vital that such operations continue. Furthermore, it is important to note the fact that many farmers are producing opium rather than other crops simply because of the fact that they make more money selling opium. It is not an issue of raising terrorist money or spreading addiction for the vast majority of growers, but rather it is an issue of people feeding their families and ensuring there is enough family income to cover bare necessities.
In order to combat the financial disparity of an opium-producing farmer and a non-opium producing farmer, the Afghan government along with American and NATO aid must provide programs and investment money for farmers to grow regular crops. The fact that most farmers are turning away from producing food has also led to a decline in available food in the nation, causing starvation. The government must prove to Afghan farmers that producing normal crops is the economically rational choice to make.
The United States, along with NATO, must continue to treat the spread of opium as a serious threat to the stability of Afghanistan, as it is directly connected to terrorist groups bent on causing havoc in the nation. A successful operation in ending the opium trade within the nation could have a huge impact — so large, in fact, that perhaps it could help Afghanistan become a fully-functioning and capable democracy.
Angad Singh is a sophomore majoring in international relations and communication.