As part of efforts to undermine the Taliban insurgency, NATO defence ministers meeting in Budapest have decided to target Afghanistan’s opium trade, by directly attacking drug laboratories. The government in Kabul had asked for help from the US-led coalition to combat opium cultivation and drug trafficking, saying it could not cope alone. Many European members of the coalition have argued against NATO tackling drugs directly, saying they will lose support from the general population and coalition troops would be put at more risk. Therefore, the deal allows for members of the coalition to opt out if they want.
Over 90 percent of the world's opium is cultivated in Afghanistan
Men are cutting down poppy plants and destroying the opium harvest in this field in southern Afghanistan. They are government workers charged with persuading poor farmers all over the country to cultivate other crops.
But many farmers are reluctant to do this as it is usually less lucrative. For this reason, Kabul has promised to subsidise poppy farmers to switch to other crops or even to learn other trades.
Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said he was optimistic about concerted efforts to combat opium cultivation, saying that the number of provinces which were opium free had “gone up to 18 -- an increase of almost 50 percent with respect to last year.”
Although it is “excellent news” that “more than half of the country’s provinces are now opium free”, this does not detract from the fact that over 90 percent of the world’s opium is cultivated in Afghanistan.
But now the activity is limited to seven provinces. “We don’t any more have an Afghan opium problem, we have an opium problem in seven provinces of Afghanistan.”
Drugs and Taliban
These seven provinces include Oruzgan, Kandahar and Helmand -- provinces, which have a strong concentration of Taliban fighters, and where the US-led coalition has had most problems trying to fight the insurgency. Drug barons have profited from the chaos and from the protection of the Taliban.
The UN estimates that 200 million euros flow into the coffers of the Taliban every year thanks to the opium trade. Money that is then used to fund the insurgency.
This is why NATO has decided to tackle the drug trade directly and to attempt to cut off one important source of funding for the Taliban, who have gained in strength in recent months.
NATO had been reluctant to make such a direct move before out of fear it would alienate the general population -- the UN estimates that, indirectly or directly, every 10th Afghan makes a living from drugs.
Kabul cannot do it alone
But Kabul insists it cannot fight opium alone -- not least because many police and army officers are implicated in the trade.
The government recently appealed for help on this front -- from all coalition members, not only those whose troops are stationed in Afghanistan’s more volatile, southern provinces.
“I would just like to recall that the international community, not only the United States and Great Britain but other European countries, such as France and Germany, have to join us in this field because this is an international issue,” said government spokesman Zelmai Afzali.
Europe reluctant to fight drug trade
But European coalition members argue that it is Kabul’s job to tackle the drug lords and fight opium cultivation in Afghanistan.
German Defence Minister Franz-Josef Jung said earlier this week that Germany would help but that Kabul had to take more responsibility: “It is right for us to contribute to the fight against drugs but we have to do it with Afghan forces. I think that it is very important.”
It is because of such insistence that NATO decided to tackle drug trafficking and hunt down opium laboratories in a concerted effort with the Afghans and to give individual nations the choice on whether to take part in anti-drugs missions.