The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) releases regular reporting on the opium trade in Afghanistan. They have done excellent work in analyzing the extent of the opium problem in Afghanistan.
Already in the 2007 annual survey on opium production in Afghanistan, UNODC challenged some of the claptrap from the SENLIS Council and other groups who have argued that poverty causes farmers to grow poppy and that eradication then results in those farmers joining the insurgency. (see also the very interesting, if you can take the bureaucratese, 2008 annual world report)
In a March report, UNODC methodically puts to rest the issue of poverty as the root cause for regional opium production. Instead:
Moreover, in Southern Afghanistan, where the majority of opium is grown, farmers could give up poppy and still make more than farmers anywhere else in the country (although less than they would growing poppy).
...it is clear that both local corruption and the insurgency are key elements in the recent opium boom in Afghanistan. Today, the most significant factor affecting the scale of cultivation among opium poppy farmers appears to be the security situation. In areas with good security, the average opium poppy farm consisted of just 10 jeribs. In more dangerous
areas, the plots were nearly four times as high, averaging 37 jeribs. The February 2008 MCN/UNODC Rapid Assessment Survey9 showed that, in a sample of 469 villages, more than
two-thirds of the villages located in areas with poor security conditions reported growing opium poppy in 2008, as compared to less than one-third in areas that enjoyed better security. In the southern and western provinces, the link between security conditions and opium poppy cultivation was even stronger, with 100 per cent of the surveyed villages where poor security conditions prevailed having planted opium poppy this year. As stated in a recent report commissioned by the World Bank and DIFID: “Ominously, the links and
synergy between opium poppy and insecurity are becoming increasingly apparent."
Even more importantly, in areas where agricultural assistance was provided within a secure environment, poppy production was greatly decreased. In areas without security, agriculture assistance had a far smaller impact, further suggesting that insurgency and poppy cultivation are far more intertwined than poverty and insurgency.
Now this become a bit of a chicken-and-egg argument because opium and insurgency have become mutually generative, that is they feed off of one another. You can't deal with one without dealing with the other.
The International Community and Afghan government have adopted an approach that looks to settle the opium issue after the insurgency has been dealt with. Yet, the opium issue contributes monetarily to the insurgency, creates an illicit economy which undermines any sense of government control, and de-legitimizes the government as many of its key leaders are involved in the trade.
(Such as Nangarhar governor Gul Agha Shirzai and, most Afghans believe, President Karzai's brother)
So what next? ISAF has adopted a head-in-the-sand approach to dealing with opium. (an approach it has also adopted with its economic development and reconstruction, governance, and information "lines of operation") As with the majority of our challenges in the country, the start is to develop a national strategy for defeating the insurgency.
A good place to begin would be supporting a nested security strategy within the Afghanistan National Development Strategy that includes a robust framework for dealing with opium. Kip has personally seen and heard ISAF leaders deride the Afghanistan National Development Strategy. The strategy, which the Afghan government is trying to produce, is the agreed upon framework for implementing the 2006 Afghanistan Compact between the International Community and the Afghan government. Neither ISAF nor CSTC-A (the US-led security assistance command) have robustly participated in the process of developing the strategy, nor as Australia's new government made clear last month, has it developed any form of coherent alternative strategy.
The Afghanistan National Development Strategy seeks to tie the various components of the Afghan government into a coherent whole capable of building an Afghan nation. An integral component of this will be defeating an insurgency which international forces cannot defeat on their own. And an integral piece of defeating the insurgency will be dealing with opium.
The up-and-down consultative process for developing the Strategy, while imperfect, has actually sought to engage communities that have been ostracized by either the regime or international forces. This has included beginning to tackle difficult issues such as narcotics. ISAF and CSTC-A should robustly participate in and support the process rather than strategizing in a vacuum.
At the very least, as a peon to unity of effort, the US Army could consider unblocking web access to the Afghanistan National Development Strategy and UNAMA from its computers.