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Dr. Rachel Ehrenfeld Headshot

Defund the Taliban

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Drug money is funding the Taliban's increasingly numerous and bolder attacks in Afghanistan. Yet, the United States has shifted its policy from eradicating poppy fields - the source of the high-grade cheap heroin that feeds at least 93% of the world's opiate addiction - to interdiction. The U.S. now targets about 50 known Afghan drug traffickers with Taliban ties. According to Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, the U.S. is "targeting terrorists with links to the drug trade rather than targeting drug traffickers with links to terrorism."

In March, on his surprise visit to Afghanistan, President Obama properly criticized the government for ignoring corruption and mismanagement. At the same time, the United States' current policy allows Afghan opium production, the major funding source for the Taliban. It is the drug trade, which permeates every corner of government and Afghan society, that fosters corruption, dysfunction and disregard for the rule of law.

While Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose political power is waning, lashed out against Mr. Obama's criticism, the spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics, Zulmai Afzali, pointed out the folly of the U.S. strategy, "The Taliban are the ones who profit from opium, so you are letting your enemy get financed by this so he can turn around and kill you back."

Afghanistan's multibillion-dollar illegal drug industry finances Taliban and al Qaeda activities, funding bribes to Afghan and Pakistani officials, sustaining the terrorists' stranglehold on farmers and foiling feeble coalition attempts to control the thriving drug trade.

Led by the United States, unsuccessful control policies have earned pointed criticism by the director of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, Viktor Ivanov, who noted that "drug production in Afghanistan has increased 40 times during the last 10 years in the presence of international troops. The previous year saw only a dramatic decline in the volume of confiscated drugs."

The United Nations estimates that the poppy generates approximately $4 billion in local revenue annually. Growers get just $1 billion, while the Taliban, al Qaeda and other terrorist and criminal groups siphon off about $3 billion. In addition to its participation in the drug trade, the Taliban profits from the poppy crop through a 10 percent "protection" tax on farmers.

To seriously curtail the Afghan insurgency and global narcoterrorism, the U.S. must use effective eradication methods while subsidizing the cultivation of alternative crops. Most important, successful eradication of the Afghan drug trade will expedite the safe withdrawal of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Afghanistan.

The U.S. must complete research on mycoherbicides - specialized bioherbicide agents designed to inoculate the soil against the growth of certain plants, ensuring that the targeted plants cannot be cultivated.

In January 2003, the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime released the Research and Development of an Environmentally Safe and Reliable Biological Control Agent for Opium Poppy Summary Report. The research indicated that mycoherbicides do not have adverse health or environmental effects. They also are target-specific - they have no effects on plants they are not engineered to affect. Congress mandated further study on mycoherbicides in 2006, but the Office of National Drug Control Policy only contracted with the National Research Council to commence research in 2009 on the impacts of mycoherbicides and the feasibility of producing and implementing their use on a wide scale.

Why the delay? Had the study been completed in 2006, and the mycoherbicide eradication program put into action, heroin production would have plummeted, seriously curtailing the financial lifeline of the Taliban.

If mycoherbicide use is implemented, the United States also should invest approximately $150 billion to $200 billion in decade-long development programs in Afghanistan, Colombia and other locations to encourage farmers to grow non-poppy and non-coca crops and develop new industries.

A comprehensive subsidy program makes good economic sense. According to official U.S. data, the societal cost of heroin and cocaine abuse in the U.S. topped $160.7 billion in 2000, including investments in drug prevention, treatment and law enforcement efforts. This total includes workplace accidents and lost productivity, rising health care costs and maintenance of a prison system packed with people imprisoned for a drug-related offense or a crime committed under the influence of drugs.

Investing $15 billion to $20 billion annually in development programs would cut costs devoted to mitigating the consequences of drug abuse domestically. At the same time, poppy and coca growers would suffer no economic loss by switching to legal crops and new industries.

The dual mycoherbicide-alternative development approach would reduce the world's supply of heroin and cocaine, severing the financial lifelines of terrorist organizations.

The sooner the mycoherbicide-alternative development is put into action, the sooner the battle against the Taliban and other terrorist and criminal organizations can be won.