Recent reports from U.S. military leaders in Afghanistan show American troops and technology are beginning to turn the tide in that conflict. Ongoing air strikes on terrorist targets using remote- piloted “drones” are having an effect as Afghan forces increasingly struggle to communicate with each other and villagers refuse to offer them places to hide.
We must learn from the mistakes of the past and prepare for a long term alliance with the Afghans once the insurgency is eliminated. But we need to do so in a way that puts that country on a long-term path to economic self-reliance not rooted in the drug trade that funds the very terrorist network that would do us harm and led us to the war in Afghanistan in the first place.
One positive sign is the report last week that the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is beginning to control the Afghan opium trade, which funds much of the Taliban’s insurgent forces in the region. According to the DEA, opium seizures in Afghanistan soared 924 percent last year because of better cooperation between Afghan and international forces.
Because the Taliban funds its insurgency with opium profits and Afghanistan produces the raw opium used to make 90 percent of the world's heroin, opium is an important strategic target of U.S. and Afghan anti-insurgency operations. The DEA’s 96 agents worked with Afghan partners and NATO forces in more than 80 combined operations last year, according to the DEA.
As a result, according to the United Nations, opium exports dropped from an estimated $3.4 billion in 2008, to $2.8 billion in 2009 – a drop in opium's share of Afghanistan's gross domestic product from about one third to one quarter. The UN projects that opium production could drop again in 2010.
If we can reduce funding to the Taliban from the drug trade, we can choke a critical supply line to the insurgents and offer hope for stability in Afghanistan. But because opium is cheap and easy to grow in a country that is among the poorest on Earth, efforts to replace opium with other crops such as wheat and vegetables that are less profitable have not reaped wide success.
If we cannot help Afghan farmers replace the opium crop with something equally profitable, they will lose their livelihood and we will sow further anti-American resentment, giving Afghan farmers further reason to side with the insurgents.
As a country, we did not choose to go to war in Afghanistan; we were attacked on September 11, 2001 by a terrorist network funded by the drug trade the DEA now targets. So when our President says, as he did during his recent trip to Afghanistan, that when America starts something, “we finish it,” its important to note that “finishing it” means a long-term partnership with our Afghan allies to ensure that country’s crop-based economy stays on a path to profitability rooted in produce, not poppies.
This problem is the next and most fundamental challenge in our war in Afghanistan and the wider global war against terrorism. Economic security is the key to ending the need for a long term U.S. military presence and to stamping out the seeds of terrorism. As difficult as the war in Afghanistan has been, it would only be worse if we leave behind a economic vacuum terrorists are only too willing to fill.
In the coming weeks, the House Armed Services Committee will continue its oversight of our current efforts in Afghanistan and our long term plans. It is crucial for the Obama administration to signal that the American refusal to quit extends beyond victory on the battlefield and to the economy that funded the attackers that led to our involvement in this war in the first place.