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The Other War in Afghanistan

No progress appears in sight for curing or containing Afghanistan's drug blight.
By Amiel Ungar
First Publish: 1/26/2011, 2:59 PM / Last Update: 1/27/2011, 9:31 AM

One of the elephants in the room in the war in Afghanistan is the opium pachyderm.

CNN recently ran a moving story about drug addiction as a way of life passed down from generation to generation in remote Balkh province. The story featured Aziza, who describes the many uses of opium that serves as a panacea for tranquilizing her children as a substitute for food in hungry bellies, and  as a cough medicine or an analgesic for the elderly. The government provides no substitute medical treatment and rehabilitation centers are far away. Even if one can get to them they accommodate only a tiny fraction of the addicted.

The story, however, is somewhat misleading because the it give the impression that the problem is confined to the boondocks, but that is far from the case.. Nationwide, there are close to 1 million addicts spread all over Afghanistan ,including the capital city of Kabul, where throngs of addicts live under bridges and overpasses.

The problem has been exacerbated by the return of exiles from Iran who have brought back heroin, the hard core drug which is the processed version of opium.

Afghanistan's opium problem is,also not confined to Afghanistan. it is a thriving export,  and in fact, 90% of the world's heroin supply comes from Afghanistan. Given the globalization of the drug trade, the Mexican drug cartels have emissaries in the country. The opium processed into heroin makes its way from Mexico to the United States and Canada.

It is very tempting for Afghan farmers to cultivate opium, which commands a price that is 7 times higher than wheat and for which the demand  is seemingly insatiable.

The high profits from the opium trade also enable the local drug lords to corrupt the local anti-drug agencies.

A final contributing factor to the drug epidemic is the Taliban insurgency. First, it creates a conflict over what to prioritize -the security dimension or the anti-drugs campaign and raises serious dilemmas: Does one crackdown on the poppy growers at the risk of alienating them and pushing them into the arms of the Taliban?

On the other hand, while poppy farming has been under some form of control in the relatively secure northern and eastern provinces, production has shifted precisely to the Southern provinces, the area of responsibility of American and British troops and where the fighting is still heavy. The Taliban protects and rakes in profits from the opium crop to finance the war. It is therefore a military objective to push the Taliban outside of the arable areas to cut down on its sources of income.

At present, it seems that the Mexican drug trade is in no danger of being halted. Nor will anyone change the way Aziza deals with her problems.