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Scenes from the Drug War

The war on drugs takes many forms. Colombia presents the militarized version, with specially trained battalions of soldiers skimming over jungles and mountainsides, spraying defoliants from helicopter gun-ships. This “poisoned earth” policy kills coca plants, not peasant farmers. So many of these cross into Ecuador to cultivate coca there.

Or you can take a poppy field and dig a large pond, fill it with fish, plant trees around it, buy some ducks and have your children watch them. This will, supposedly, eradicate a field of poppies, provide local people with protein from fish and fowl, help reforestation and also bring employment to local children. That, at least, was the idea behind a United States Agency for International Development (USAID)-funded poppy eradication program in Afghanistan. As in Colombia, however, the results were fleeting.

Poppy, like coca, is an ideal cash crop for farmers with small areas of land and few resources. It needs little care and brings a secure income. Fighting poppy and/or coca production, on the other hand, is an ideal political stance for politicians. It is easier to vote to spend millions of dollars to eradicate poppy/coca production in poor countries than confront addiction at home. To see the folly of these endeavors, let me dissect a number of anti-poppy schemes undertaken in Afghanistan with which I was connected.

The promise of funds to fight poppy production galvanized the American Embassy in Islamabad into action. The wife of the then American Ambassador personally threw her weight behind the program. Impatient, she flew to Quetta to discuss with Mullah Nasim Aukhundzada a poppy substitution program. Mullah Aukhundzada was the Amir of a big area of Helmand in Southwest Afghanistan, a major poppy producing area. He promised to slash poppy production in return for tractors, seed, and other goodies.