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A lot of people say to me that the last thing we want to do is get involved in another messy drug war, and I always say, "Too late." The biggest challenge is corruption, because as much money as the insurgents are earning off the drug trade, corrupt officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan are earning even more. It's going to be very complex for the U.S. and for the international community, for NATO, to find reliable and trustworthy partners to work with. I don't think that it is widely understood how high up the corruption goes within the Pakistani government, particularly within their military and intelligence forces.
For several years now, the U.S. and NATO have been trying to dissuade poppy growers in Afghanistan either by force or by encouraging them to switch to other crops. It doesn't seem to be working. Why not?
Well, one reasons why farmers grow poppy is that it typically earns more than other licit crops. Anyone who has driven down Afghanistan's spine-crushing highways knows the challenges of growing fruits, gapes, oranges ... they would be completely bruised and destroyed by the time you get them to market, if you even can.
There are also areas where the Taliban is threatening farmers with dire consequences if they don't grow poppy. The opium traffickers send in merchants in the fall to prepurchase the crops, so it gives the farmers a much needed cash injection that they use to get their families through the winter. We've done nothing in the international community to provide that kind of microcredit program for licit crops. To my mind, the important thing is to really take the focus off of the farmers and to put it on the traffickers.
NATO and U.S. forces have a new commander, General Stanley McChrystal. What are the first three or four things he needs to do to address this problem?
I think the first step has to be identifying how the money and drugs flow, studying the maps and looking at the routes that narcotics take out of the country, identifying where the drug labs are, identifying the major players. This is going to require a lot more intelligence-sharing than has been going on.
General McChrystal's other big priority is going to be helping establish security in border areas to create the correct environment for a bottom-up stability campaign at the village level. U.S. and NATO military officials, working alongside civilian officials, can work with communities to push these people out. There is no point in trying to reconcile with the Taliban and when I say the Taliban, I mean the leadership of the Taliban. We're never going to beat the Taliban and al-Qaeda by trying to shoot them all. However, I do believe that there are many tribes living on the southern Afghanistan border that can be pulled away from the insurgency if offered a better alternative.
I think that we will win this war in Afghanistan and Pakistan when we make the Taliban and al-Qaeda irrelevant and offer the people of the border areas a better alternative. People want security, schools, health care. They really just want a safe place to live. To my mind, this is like an inner-city slum where there are criminal gangs terrorizing the people and cops that are on the take. We need to clean up these communities. We need to help the people of this region, and I think we'll see this situation start to turn around.