ISLAMABAD — The recent crackdown on opium producers by Afghan officials, resulting in the arrest of more than 100 poppy farmers in eastern Afghanistan, promises only to intensify global concerns about the central Asian country becoming the world’s largest source of raw material for heroin.

While the U.S. military deployed in Afghanistan continues to hunt for members of the former Taliban regime and the terrorist group al-Qaeda, little global attention is paid to a potentially bigger challenge emerging in the war-torn country.

The outcome of the war on drugs will be determined by conditions involving Afghan politics, economic trends and social values. Yet halting drugs at the source is a more effective way to curtail the world’s supply of heroin than arresting end users in cities across the industrialized world.

Although the Taliban were globally condemned for many faults, their one claim to fame was imposing a successful ban on poppy cultivation. In its final year of power in Afghanistan, the Taliban regime managed to eliminate the crop altogether. Now, however, the U.S.-backed government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai appears to be helpless in tackling what is emerging as an increasingly difficult challenge.

According to U.N. estimates, last year Afghanistan produced up to 3,400 tons of opium, making it the world’s leading supplier of the drug. To deal with this challenge, the West must now redefine its approach to the central Asian country in three fundamental ways:

First, despite international promises of large-scale assistance to rebuild Afghanistan, the country’s social infrastructure remains in disarray after years of conflict. The poorest of the poor, including the poppy farmers, still have insufficient access to health care facilities and schools. Until impoverished Afghans begin to see signs of hope in their future, they will use all means to survive, including growing poppies.

Second, effectively clamping down on the opium trade requires a dialogue between defiant poppy farmers and representatives of the Afghan government as well as foreign governments. The objective of such a dialogue should be to promote alternative ways of making a living to compensate for the loss of livelihoods dependent on poppy cultivation. Unless farmers know that their incomes will not shrink after switching from opium to other crops, many will likely resist efforts to stop opium production.

The industrialized world must offer incentives to help farmers raise their standards of living. Such a policy would still be more cost-effective than spending billions of dollars to try to staunch the flow of drugs after they arrive at their market destinations.

Finally, Afghanistan’s economic recovery must be built upon a revival of trade and other business opportunities to reduce the country’s high rate of unemployment. However, until the country’s precarious security situation is stabilized, it will be difficult to attract the foreign investment necessary to bring about economic growth and development. Even wealthy expatriate Afghans with a desire to invest in their homeland find it difficult to do so under current conditions. Other deterrents to new investment include bureaucratic delays in the Kabul government and uncertainty about the political situation.

A few success stories would go a long way toward setting the pace for attracting a larger flow of investment, since Afghanistan does not have the luxury of quick-fix solutions that could help the country begin to overcome some of its more serious challenges.

The Afghan opium problem must be tackled with two strategies. In the short run, Karzai’s government must enforce a ban on poppy production, while key donors, including the U.S., must recognize that without assurances of a substantial political and economic turnaround, the country is likely to remain at the center of the international drug trade.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.