Spraying Our Way to Another Strategic Communication Problem

by David Berg

The US State Department has been quietly advocating the use of a controversial strategy transplanted from the War on Drugs in South America to the War on Terrorism in Afghanistan. According to freelance journalist Joseph Kirschke, the US State Department strongly advocates aerial poppy eradication to combat the illicit drug trade and growing insurgency there. The United Nations estimates that Afghanistan currently produces 92 percent of the world’s opium and 80 percent of the world’s heroin supply. The US State Department’s plan to eradicate opium production in Afghanistan would, however, be tremendously harmful to US counterinsurgency and counterterrorism narratives if it were implemented.

A critical aspect of Taliban and Al Qaeda narratives is that the United States is waging a war on all Muslims throughout the region. Our counter narrative, however, argues that the United States genuinely cares about the Afghan people and wants to help them rebuild their lives. Spraying opium crops in Afghanistan therefore contradicts our narrative, given that little support is currently available to help ordinary Afghans survive on a daily basis.

Billions of dollars in aid and reconstruction money have done little to substantially improve living conditions in rural Afghanistan. In a recent interview on Bill Moyers Journal, Afghanistan resident and former National Public Radio correspondent Sarah Chayes provides a startling reality check on how difficult it is to live in this war-torn nation:

BILL MOYERS: Are the basic needs of ordinary people being met?

SARAH CHAYES: Well, currently, there’s enormous inflation. The price of wheat has doubled. Now this is a global problem. But the price of wheat has doubled in about the last six months. And that means, that a government salary, which is at, let’s say, $50 a month. That buys you not one sack of wheat. And an extended family is going eat three sacks of wheat in a month. So that means you’ve got a whole system that obliges people to be corrupt.

Active participation in the opium trade is one of the few ways that ordinary Afghans can feed their families. Some military analysts think that the reason the Taliban was not able to mobilize resistance among the Southern Afghan people in the early phases of Operation Enduring Freedom was because of their ruthless crackdown on opium production until 2001. US Officials would be wise to learn from the Taliban’s mistake, and not do anything to cause further difficulties for ordinary Afghans.

Another key element to Al Qaeda and Taliban narratives in Afghanistan is that the US and its NATO partners are indiscriminately killing and harming Afghans much like the Soviet forces that preceded them. The US counter narrative is therefore predicated on clearly demonstrating how different the actions of US and NATO forces really are from the Soviets. But aerial spraying in other location such as Columbia has resulted in the destruction of legitimate farming crops, livestock deaths, and reports of human illnesses as well. Chayes argues that crop eradication will drive Afghanistan’s people to join groups like the Taliban and Al Qaeda:

BILL MOYERS: So what happens if the American ambassador there, who’s a big advocate of aerial spraying to destroy the poppy fields. What happens if he succeeds? What happens if the United States government sprays all the poppy plants and kills them, as happened in Colombia. What do the farmers do?

SARAH CHAYES: They join the Taliban. I mean, it’s the biggest gift we could possibly do for the insurgency. What else would they do? They’re furious. Their livelihood is taken away. Their children might be poisoned. Or they might think their children are poisoned. They join the Taliban. They take revenge.

Stories of Soviet chemical weapons usage during the 1979-1990 occupation generated international outrage as well as further consolidating support for Afghan Mujahedin within the country. Regardless of how safe these herbicides may actually be, Al Qaeda and the Taliban will argue that NATO and US Forces are using chemical weapons against the Afghan people. This message would be incredibly harmful to any goodwill our Provincial Reconstruction Teams have created up to this point.

Although poppy growth has exploded in Afghanistan since 2001, the situation is not hopeless. There are many things that can be done to reduce poppy cultivation and dispel ideas that that westerners are trying to destroy Afghanistan. Alternatives to aerial spraying include the following:

  1. Offer to buy poppy crops from local farmers at competitive prices as a short term solution. This would foster direct and meaningful lines of communication between the Afghan people and counterinsurgency forces. Gaining the farmers trust through a purchase of opium could prove to be a tremendous intelligence bonanza and public relations coups for NATO. Once farmers begin to trust NATO forces to assist with their livelihood, they will be more likely to provide information about Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives in their region. Purchased opium could be destroyed or sold to pharmaceutical companies to produce medicinal products to offset the costs of this project.
  2. Establish farming cooperatives that would help Afghans produce and sell legitimate agricultural products as an alternative to the poppy trade. Although this is a mid-term solution, more effort should be devoted towards helping the country achieve stability through the agrarian economy and culture of Afghanistan. The agricultural lands that poppies are grown on also support pomegranates, nuts, spices, apricots, and a variety of other fruits. The establishment of farming cooperatives is consistent with counterinsurgency doctrine and narratives about helping the Afghan people.
  3. Establish a long-term incentive program for farmers that do not grow poppies on their farmland. The US Department of Agriculture provides tax breaks and subsidies to farmers that do not produce certain crops. These programs ensure that market prices remain stable over a long time period. Similar programs could be started in Afghanistan to keep opium prices stable and prevent an upswing in production due to a decrease in supply or an increase in demand.

While these suggestions are not perfect, they will not alienate the local population or feed into the insurgent narrative that the West is trying to destroy Afghanistan. Given that Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and General McNeil, Commander of NATO-ISAF in Afghanistan also think aerial spraying to eradicate poppies is a bad idea, the US State Department would be wise to scrap this plan and go back to the drawing board.