The New York Times reported on Sunday that the NATO forces in the town of Marja no longer seek to eradicate the poppy fields, as they are trying to build support among the villagers rather than destroy more livelihoods. While the new burst of conflict-sensitivity is welcome, the real conundrum remains. Eradicating the poppy plantations has hurt the poorest in Afghanistan, worsened corruption, and encouraged the peasants to join the Taliban, but not eradicating poppy strengthens the insurgents, who benefit from the narco-trafficking by taxing peasants and collecting protection fees. Experts fear that the insurgents are getting involved in the production and trafficking of opium as well, which provides them even a stronger incentive to continue fighting compared to mere ideology. As the conflict is fueled by the several billion-dollar opium trade, it is clear that lasting peace cannot be built before the narcotics industry is curbed.

While the NATO-ISAF approach to combat poppy growing is now more gradual, there are other links in the smuggling chain that should be cut. The easiest target is the bottom link, the peasants; much more difficult is to punish the people with power and wealth. The poor legal institutions and a lack of political will ensure that many influential people involved in the trade never get prosecuted or even removed from their office. A lack of state security makes borders so porous that only two percent of opium is seized when leaving the country. In contrast, 20 percent of Colombia’s cocaine is seized at its border.

The Western military does not want to harm its reputation any more by angering the villagers, but the flourishing narco-trade should not be ignored. Instead of focusing on the voiceless peasants, the counter-narcotic forces can boost their efforts to destroy heroin laboratories, improve border security, and target traffickers and drug lords. While it remains a true challenge in one of the world’s most corrupt countries, it is also one of the most important ones, as the conflict in Afghanistan is quickly turning into another narco war with the insurgents and drug traffickers uniting.

Photo attributed to: Gunnery Sgt. Bryce Piper, 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit Public Affairs

Written by Johanna Teeri