"Destroying Afghan Farmers' Poppy Fields Is a Bad Idea."
Often, but not always. In the early years of the Afghanistan war, coalition policy included widespread forced eradication. In June 2009, however, Barack Obama's administration announced that U.S. and other international forces would no longer conduct eradication operations, on which the late Richard Holbrooke said the United States had "wasted hundreds of millions of dollars."
The sensible motivation for this reversal was recognition that eradication produced unintended consequences. Pulling up a farmer's opium crop could generate ill will, perhaps enough to produce a new recruit for the insurgency. It was also geographically inconvenient. Afghanistan is a horrendously complicated place, but to oversimplify, two-thirds of the country (roughly 27 of 34 provinces) has been nearly poppy-free and relatively stable for a few years. The remaining third -- in particular Helmand and Kandahar provinces -- is rife with both poppies and insurgents. Eradication in those areas has a minimal and temporary effect on the drug trade, at most pushing production to the next valley or district. And angering farmers where Taliban recruiters prowl seemed like a gift to the enemy. So the Obama administration swore off direct support of eradication, though the governors of some Afghan provinces continue to pursue their own eradication programs.
But swearing off eradication everywhere has come with its own unintended consequences. Two-thirds of Afghanistan has -- at considerable cost -- been largely rid of poppies already. Keeping them poppy-free is not only relatively easy at this point, but will maintain a degree of normalcy for more than half the country, placate Russia -- which, as one of the principal markets for Afghan drugs, is understandably irate at the prospect of a hands-off opium policy -- and cement the United States' local reputation for being opposed to drugs at a time when addiction is sweeping Afghan society. If America wants to win hearts and minds in a country whose addiction rate is among the highest in the world, there are worse things than being seen as resolutely anti-drug while reminding people that the Taliban profit from the illicit industry that has enslaved their family members. Refraining from quixotic and counterproductive measures in the south does not require sacrificing progress already made in the rest of the country.