Mohammad Gulab Mangal, who served as the governor of Helmand province between 2008 and 2012, talks about the anti-narcotic campaign and why it has proved a big disaster.
Q: According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC), Afghanistan continues to be the top opium producer in the world and Helmand is the largest producer of opium in Afghanistan. Why has the anti-narcotic campaign failed to produce results in this country?
A:During my tenure as the governor of Helmand province between 2008 and 2012, with the help and assistance of international partners and the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics, the cultivation of drugs decreased significantly. However, since 2012, it has again witnessed an alarming surge.
Different strategies and approaches have been used in the fight against drugs in Afghanistan. In 2004-2005, in order to dissuade farmers from cultivating opium, the government and its international partners used to pay them money. However, that policy did not work as farmers started cultivating more opium to get more money from the government and its foreign donors.
The other approach involved the use of force against farmers, which again back-fired as farmers developed antagonistic feeling for the government. They were supported by armed insurgents and hence the drug production witnessed an alarming surge.
The massive production of drugs in Helmand is because of the suitable weather conditions and also it helps armed insurgents continue war against the government.
Q. How much money was spent on the anti-narcotic campaign in 2004-2005, which eventually proved a disaster? Do you think that gave impetus to the culture of corruption in Afghanistan?
A:The exact amount is not known to me as the money was paid directly to farmers by foreign donors. Also it was not my direct responsibility. Based on the information and reports I received that time,it was clear that the strategy of dissuading farmers by paying them money did not work. It only led to rampant corruption.
The forged documents were also provided in that process. For example, Ahmad cultivated opium on one acre of land but he mentioned 15 acres of land in documents, so he ended up receiving more money than he ought to receive. That strategy proved a major disaster.
Q.So, do you believe the foreign money that was meant to fight drugs in Afghanistan was not used well?
A: Yes, without any doubt.The two strategies adopted by the government to stop opium cultivation backfired. The cultivation of opium not only increased but it led to surge in corruption.
Many local and foreign entities benefited from it. Today, we are told that billions of dollars have been spent on anti-narcotic campaign, but large chunk of that money was squandered.
Q. A special unit had been established in Helmand province to combat drugs. Why was it not effective?
A:After the policy of government to dissuade farmers by paying them money failed, a special unit was founded to stop opium cultivation. It also created wedge between farmers and the government and many of them joined armed insurgents. On the other hand, it led to massive corruption.Farmers used to give them hefty money for not destroying their opium fields.
Q.In one of your statements, you said the war in Helmand is not about insurgency, it is a war for drugs. Do you still stand by that statement?
A:It is true.The armed opposition groups in Helmand province receive money from farmers cultivating opium.They even force farmers and drug smugglers in the areas controlled by the government to give them money.
That is primarily why we see fewer attacks during the time of opium harvest in Helmand. After the harvest season, they buy arms and ammunition and scale up their dastardly activities. It shows that the opium money received by insurgents goes into the war. Opium funds Taliban’s war in Helmand. If there is no opium, there will be no war.
Q. If the cultivation of opium is banned in Helmand; do you think the war will also come to an end? And what should be done to stop the cultivation of opium?
A:If opium cultivation is stopped in Helmand, I can certainly tell you the war in that province will suffer a major setback. In the context of Helmand, the cultivation of opium and war are directly connected to each other.So, the war against drugs is the war against insurgency in Helmand.
During my tenure as the governor, I tried to develop good relations with local people. We used to solve their problems through government institutions and carried out many health, agriculture and education projects. During those four years (2008-2012), the opium cultivation decreased significantly.
But since 2012, the cultivation has again jumped. The opium farms are now in government controlled areas as well, which is a matter of deep concern.
Q.How big is this problem of opium cultivation and what should the national unity government do to fight it?
A:In my opinion, fight against drugs is as important as the fight against terrorism. It requires strong political will, without which the counter-narcotic efforts will prove futile. Secondly, it requires an out-of-box strategy and joint effort from both the government and its international partners.