Washington Post military correspondent Thomas Ricks reports on a crucial way in which the War on Drugs is undermining US efforts in the War on Terror in Afghanistan. According to Ricks, the US-sponsored campaign to eradicate opium poppy crops in Afghanistan is "resulting in an alliance between wealthy drug traders and anti government Taliban forces," thereby strengthing the Taliban insurgency against Coalition forces and the government of Hamid Karzai.
It is not just "wealthy drug traders" whom we might be driving into the Taliban's arms. Some 3.5 million Afghans (10 percent of the population), participate in the opium trade, which accounts for an estimated one third of Afghan GDP. Forcible poppy eradication campaigns are likely to "push the small farmer[s who grow poppy] into the arms of the Taliban." If I were an Afghan peasant and raising poppy was my main (or perhaps only) source of income, I might well be tempted to back the Taliban myself if the only alternative government is one that takes away my livelihood. At the very least, I would think twice before providing any intelligence on Taliban movements in my area to US or Afghan government forces.
In addition to the loss of crucial support from the Afghan population, the War on Drugs also undermines the War on Terror in Afghanistan through its substantial opportunity costs. According to the second article linked above, the British government has committed $55 million to poppy eradication efforts in Afghanistan. The US is also devoting substantial resources to the effort. These funds could be far more profitably devoted to strengthening the Afghan government, building up the Afghan Army, repairing infrastructure, and other purposes that advance the War on Terror rather than retard it.
To be fair, part of the US-backed anti-poppy campaign involves efforts to give Afghan farmers incentives to voluntarily switch to other crops. However,US policy also promotes forcible "interdiction" and "elimination/eradication," in the words of a State Department briefing on the subject. While I am skeptical about the value of even the voluntary crop-switching program, the coercive one creates a particularly serious danger to our broader purposes in Afghanistan.
As a libertarian, I would oppose the War on Drugs even if it didn't interfere with the War on Terror. But I don't want to argue the broader issue of drug legalization here. Instead I want to ask those who support the War on Drugs or are ambivalent about it whether you think it important enough to pursue even at the cost of seriously undermining the War on Terror.
Eliminating this contradiction in our policy would not require abandoning the War on Drugs in its entirety. It will, however, require us to eliminate or at least drastically curtail the ill-advised campaign to eradicate Afghan poppy farming. As between those Afghans who want to kill us and those who just want to sell us drugs, I think it's vastly more important to defeat the former. I hope that the Bush Administration comes around to this point of view as well.
UPDATE: Yes, it is true, as some commenters argue, that the Taliban cracked down on opium production themselves when they were in power. But as the Ricks article indicates, today they are willing to subordinate the goal of eradicating poppy to the more important objective of winning the war. The Taliban seems to have learned from its mistakes in this area at least. We should learn from ours.