Posted by: Dark Defender | October 30, 2008

Afghanistan victim of the Iraq war or victim of the drug war?

So I was watching frontline’s “war briefing” on Afghanistan.  It was really good I highly recommend everyone watch it. 

I was struck by two things from the show.

1) Iraq has negatively impacted the war in Afghanistan by sucking up resources.  This seems accepted and indisputable, Frontline was certainly intent on hammering this point home.  They described the war as an “economy of force” operation, basically a holding action.  I think that’s fair and accurate. 

However I think prioritizing Iraq is a reasonable strategy.  Whatever one thinks of how we got into Iraq, given its oil wealth and strategic and cultural position within the Middle East, I just don’t see how anyone could think it is somehow less important than Afghanistan.  All the badness which would come from Afghanistan falling apart: terrorist safe havens, morale boost for Islamists etc would come from Iraq collapsing as well but instead of it being in a poor remote region, it would be in the center of the Middle East in a nation with vast oil reserves which sits astride the most important oil trade route in the world (the Persian Gulf). 

So im sorry but prioritizing Iraq is logical, Id have appreciated if frontline explored the pros and cons of the strategy instead of using the fact as an indictment.

2) The role of opium cultivation in funding the Taliban insurgency struck me.  One of the Taliban’s primary sources of income is “taxes” they impose on opium farmers and traffickers.  According to a series from the Middle East Times the Taliban is making roughly 300 million a year off the trade each year and has in the past decade (yes contrary to popular myth they did not really oppose opium production when they were in power) they have made close to a billion and a half dollars off the trade.  That’s a vast amount for a group of insurgent fighters in a country with a GDP of near 8 billion.

So why are the Afghans churning out so much opium.  Economics of course…a recent newsweek article explains:

While law enforcers predict yet another record opium harvest in Afghanistan this spring, most farmers are struggling to survive. An estimated 500,000 Afghan families support themselves by raising poppies, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Last year those growers received an estimated $1 billion for their crops—about $2,000 per household. With at least six members in the average family, opium growers’ per capita income is roughly $300. The real profits go to the traffickers, their Taliban allies and the crooked officials who help them operate. The country’s well-oiled narcotics machine generates in excess of $4 billion a year from exports of processed opium and heroin—more than half of Afghanistan’s $7.5 billion GDP, according to the UNODC.

Efforts to promote other crops have failed. Wheat or corn brings $250 an acre at best, while poppy growers can expect 10 times that much. Besides, poppies are more dependable: hardier than either wheat or corn and more tolerant of drought and extreme heat and cold. And in a country with practically no government-funded credit for small farmers, opium growers can easily get advances on their crops. The borrower merely agrees to repay the cash with so many kilos of opium, at a price stipulated by the lender

Opium is a natural product of Afghanistan and its cultivation is one of the few ways most Afghans can make a decent living.  And what are we the great liberators of Afghanistan doing?

Map of NATO deployments.

Map of NATO deployments.

Well, naturally we have extended the “drug war” to the country, in fact NATO is now getting into the act and its troops will now participate in this war against the Afghan economy. 

BUDAPEST — NATO defense ministers agreed Friday to allow troops operating in Afghanistan to attack drug lords and their networks supporting the escalating insurgency in the country.

The United States has identified opium trafficking in Afghanistan as a primary target in the battle against the Taliban, but many poor farmers who toil in the poppy fields, above, depend on it.

The agreement came after strong pressure from the United States, which has identified opium trafficking in Afghanistan — the source of more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin supplies — as a primary target in the stepped-up battle against the Taliban insurgency that American commanders have begun mapping out in recent weeks.

Great! So we are forcing opium production further underground and thus making it more expensive (and thus profitable) while at the same time pushing it further into the arms of the Taliban and other black market forces.  Brilliant!

And what effects have eradication efforts produced so far? Well every year we seem to get headlines about how Afghanistan has produced yet another record crop, heroin is certainly still getting onto western streets. And in Afghanistan itself through eradication efforts we are alienating the Afghans people by taking away their only viable means of supporting their families.  Some stories from a heart breaking Newsweek story on “Opium brides”

Khalida’s father says she’s 9—or maybe 10. As much as Sayed Shah loves his 10 children, the functionally illiterate Afghan farmer can’t keep track of all their birth dates. Khalida huddles at his side, trying to hide beneath her chador and headscarf. They both know the family can’t keep her much longer. Khalida’s father has spent much of his life raising opium, as men like him have been doing for decades in the stony hillsides of eastern Afghanistan and on the dusty southern plains. It’s the only reliable cash crop most of those farmers ever had. Even so, Shah and his family barely got by: traffickers may prosper, but poor farmers like him only subsist. Now he’s losing far more than money. “I never imagined I’d have to pay for growing opium by giving up my daughter,” says Shah.

The family’s heartbreak began when Shah borrowed $2,000 from a local trafficker, promising to repay the loan with 24 kilos of opium at harvest time. Late last spring, just before harvest, a government crop-eradication team appeared at the family’s little plot of land in Laghman province and destroyed Shah’s entire two and a half acres of poppies. Unable to meet his debt, Shah fled with his family to Jalalabad, the capital of neighboring Nangarhar province. The trafficker found them anyway and demanded his opium. So Shah took his case before a tribal council in Laghman and begged for leniency. Instead, the elders unanimously ruled that Shah would have to reimburse the trafficker by giving Khalida to him in marriage. Now the family can only wait for the 45-year-old drugrunner to come back for his prize. Khalida wanted to be a teacher someday, but that has become impossible. “It’s my fate,” the child says.

Opium is thriving in the south, particularly the provinces of Helmand and Nimruz, where Taliban fighters keep government eradication teams at bay. But times are perilously hard for farmers in other places like Nangarhar, a longtime poppy-growing province on the mountainous Pakistani border. Mohammad Zahir Khan, a Nangarhar sharecropper in his late 40s, borrowed $850 against last spring’s harvest, promising 10 kilos of opium to the lender—about $1,250 on the local market. The cash bought food and other necessities for his family and allowed him to get seed, fertilizer and help tending his three sharecropped acres. In the spring he collected 45 kilos of raw opium paste, half of which went immediately to the landowner.

But before Khan could repay the loan, his wife fell seriously ill with a kidney ailment. She needed better medical care than Nangarhar could offer, so he rushed her across the Pakistani border to a private hospital in Peshawar. It cost almost every cent they had, and Khan knew his opium debt would only grow. Worse, the provincial governor, a former warlord named Gul Agha Sherzai, chose that moment to declare his own war on drugs, jailing hundreds of local farmers who were caught planting opium. Nangarhar had 45,000 acres in poppies a year ago; today drug experts say the province is totally clean.

Late last year Khan reluctantly gave his 16-year-old daughter, Gul Ghoti, in marriage to the lender’s 15-year-old son. Besides forgiving Khan’s debt, the creditor gave him a $1,500 cash dowry. Khan calls him an honorable man. “Until the end of my life I will feel shame because of what I did to my daughter,” Khan says. “I still can’t look her in the eye.” But at least she was old enough to marry, he adds. He claims one local farmer recently had to promise the hand of his 2-month-old daughter to free his family from an opium debt. Khan is raising wheat this year. He doubts it will support his family, and he worries that eventually one of his two younger daughters will become a loan bride. Neither of them is yet in her teens.

But in Nangarhar, even former lenders are feeling the pinch. Enaghul, 40, used to be a relatively prosperous poppy farmer. Today he has little to show for his past wealth aside from his 17-year-old daughter-in-law, Shaukina, and a 2-month-old grandson. “She is pretty and works hard in the fields,” Enaghul says, still happy to have won her for his son. Four years ago he gave Shaukina’s father a loan in return for a promise of 30 kilos of opium, never imagining that both their fields would be eradicated before harvest. That’s how Enaghul’s son married Shaukina. But with the opium ban, Enaghul says his family is barely surviving. They make less than $2 a day growing tomatoes and potatoes. Enaghul casts an appraising eye on his youngest daughter, Sharifa, 5, as she runs after a goat in the courtyard of their mud-and-brick home. “I think she would fetch between $500 and $600,” he says. With luck, he says, he might be able to postpone the wedding five or six years.


Now I ask you what is the point of all this? To fight “the drug war”, are we successfully preventing heroin from reaching our citizens who want it?  Well um no, according to the most recent data from the National Institutute of Drug Abuse

National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)3
According to the 2006 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the number of current (past-month) heroin users in the United States increased from 136,000 in 2005 to 338,000 in 2006. The corresponding prevalence rate increased from 0.06 to 0.14 percent.

So lets take a hard look at this.

Ok so we have already established that Afghanistan is an “economy of force” operation, they only get the money and resources which can be spared from the central front (Iraq) and of those meager resources we are devoting a portion to an anti-drug program which is having no impact on the problem it is supposed to address.  To the contrary, as we alienate the Afghan public by ruining their lives and dooming their families, heroin use is actually going up in our own country.

The failure of our eradication efforts shows we need more eradication efforts!

The fruits of the glorious success of our eradication policy.

So what is the point?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to just to end the drug war, let the farmers grow heroin legally and instead spend the anti-drug resources on fighting the people who are hoping to be able to attack our cities?

Color me crazy but it seems to me common sense that stopping future 9/11 style attacks on ourselves and our allies is a bit more important than preventing heroin use.  Oh wait, we aren’t even preventing heroin use now, it is actually going up while we fritter away our resources on attacking the Afghan economy.

The idiocy of this policy is obvious, prohibition always fails the only way to take the drug trade out of the hands of the black market or in this case terrorists, is to legalize it.  But OK I know its to much to expect that a country which recently produced the following ad to suddenly take a reasonable and mature position on the issue.

So lets leave outright legalization aside, we clearly aren’t ready for that kind of common sense.

Perhaps there is something less extreme we can do to work with the Afghans instead of trying to grind their economy into the ground in the name of our precious anti-drug crusade?

In fact there is, from RealClearWorld:

The anti-opium crusade in Afghanistan is destroying entire crops there, and by doing so, turning the village population against the United States and the central government. Astonishingly, the U.S. buys 80% of the opium it needs for painkillers and other medicinal purposes from Turkey and India. The story becomes even more astonishing when one realizes that the World Health Organization complained that there is a global shortage of medicinal opium.

If Turkey was a country similar to Afghanistan this approach would make sense. But it is not. Turkey has a very diverse economy, which will become even more diverse in the years ahead. The AK Party (or Justice and Development Party) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gulhas tremendously liberalized the country’s economy in the years they were in power, and will continue to do as long as they remain in office. Turkish companies produce a wide variety of products (especially textiles and agricultural goods) which are all exported to Western countries. The same can be said for India, which has one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

Afghanis watch as part of their economy is burned.

Afghans watch as part of their economy is burned.


In short, buying opium from Turkey and India (and against a higher price) and not from Afghanistan (against a lower price) is bad politics. The United States should stop buying opium from Turkey and, instead, buy up entire harvests in Afghanistan. These crops could then be used for painkillers and other drugs legal in the West. Such a change in policy would help Afghanistan and the central government tremendously. Farmers would suddenly have an alternative. They would be able to choose between the Taliban and the West, free from the oppression and blackmail of the Taliban. At the same time, little would be lost for Turkey which produces many other goods the U.S. can import.

All the talk about a possible military surge in Afghanistan, and a radical change in policy, will be rendered useless unless the U.S. starts implementing a common sense approach towards opium. Success or failure will, to a large degree, depend on whether or not the U.S. continues its unwise policy of alienating Afghan farmers. It is quite possible that the Taliban will make a comeback in the coming years, and that the central Afghan government will have to give them some political power. Conversely, if the U.S. buys up opium crops from Afghan farmers, it will weaken the standing of the Taliban tremendously, even if the Taliban return to power.

Wow doesn’t that sound incredibly common sensical? Why aren’t we doing that?

Well there are some problems according to the global research centre there are some problems with the plan.  Lets tackle them in order:

Firstly, the medical opium ‘shortage’ is an illusory one. Licit opium production currently takes place primarily in Tasmania, Turkey, and India, strictly licensed by the UN drug agencies. The problem is evidently not a lack of opium but rather the under use of current production. The INCB estimated annual global demand for licit opiates (in morphine equivalents) was 400 metric tonnes and that over production since 2000 has led to stocks ‘that could cover global demand for two years’. Afghanistan’s annual production is 610 tonnes of morphine equivalent (and rising). Flooding an already over-saturated market would potentially cause precisely the supply/demand imbalance the UN control system was designed to prevent. Any first steps would, therefore, have to address under-usage of existing production and the related political, bureaucratic, and licensing issues before any realistic role for licit Afghan production could seriously be entertained.

Ok lets take this objection at face value and assume all of its assertions are true (though I dont know that they are, since it appears to contradict the RCW article).

So Turkey, India and Australia are afraid that their UN enforced monopoly will be upset by more opium entering the market.  Um who cares? As RCW notes, they are all developed economies that can easily adapt.  Afghanistan on the other hand is almost completely dependent on opium crops, even with the crop illegal it accounts for half their economy.  Further with Iraq returning to stability, Afghanistan is again becoming the central front in the war on terror, does it really make sense to give up a weapon against the Taliban and Al-Qaida in order to protect farmers in rich countries? On what planet does that make sense?

Finally as to the claimed under usage, it seems odd to me that there would be under usage of a product which the article claims is over produced.  Doesn’t econ 101 say that as prices gp down usage will go up? So this claim really doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, but OK lets accept it as true.  Why don’t we spend our eradication money on subsidizing the Afghan opium farmers? That way the market could be saturated and the prices of legal pain killers brought down, but the profits of the farmers maintained.  Isn’t that win-win? Cheaper health care and Afghan’s farmers being co-opted from the Taliban to our side? 

Secondly the article claims

The second problem is a purely practical one with Afgahanistan’s status as a failed state and war zone presenting insurmountable obstacles. Although such an illicit-to-licit transition has been achieved in Turkey and India, this required a high level of infrastructural investment, state intervention and security apparatus, something Afghanistan is entirely lacking in its current chaotic and lawless state. Afghan production would also struggle to compete on the international market, with its unit costs estimated by David Mansfield (1) at almost ten times higher than the highly industrialised output from Australia.

This one I can’t accept at face value.  As the global research centre itself already stated, the Afghans are producing lots and lots of opium.  So the need for massive more additional infrastructure just doesn’t make any sense.

As for security well first isn’t one of the primary missions of NATO troops in Afghanistan to protect the civilian population from the Taliban? Wont that mission in fact be easier with the farmers cooperating with us, instead of being afraid we will take their lively hood away?

Also with opium production legal the Afghan government will be able to tax it.  They could then use this tax money to hire locals to guard the fields and villages, thus expanding their army or police forces.  Whats more these farmers sons and villagers who get hired, wont just be working for some far off foreign backed government, they will be defending the lively hood of their fathers, brothers and friends.  It will give them a stake in fighting for their national government, instead of a stake in fighting against it.

Finally as to the cost difference, the RCW and GRC articles don’t seem to agree.  But even if GRC is correct and the Australian opium is cheaper, which I find hard to believe given how India and Turkey’s natural production is apparently competitive at present.  It can be dealt with by a subsidy or regulation. 

I’m all for free markets but the drug market is already profoundly distorted.  It wont pain me at all to put some Australian synthetic opium makers out of business (or just give them some more competition) in the name of the war on terror.  Who could object to that?

GRC’s final objection is even sillier:

Finally there is the fact that demand for non-medical opiates will not disappear, even if Afghan opium production hypothetically could. A lucrative illicit profit opportunity would remain – a vacuum into which other illicit production would inevitably move – whether in Central Asia or elsewhere. More likely, the demand would be met by increased Afghan production under the same farmers, warlords and profiteers, potentially making the situation worse. The plan has no more hope of getting rid of illicit non-medical production than the decades of failed alternative development and eradication have. The brutal realities of supply and demand economics in a completely unregulated and illegal marketplace will see to that.

So let me get this straight, we cant try to work with the Afghans to stabilize their economy because it wont eradicate drug use, which btw is impossible (even according to GCR).  That makes no sense, this is a policy which is aimed at winning the war on terror and stabilizing Afghanistan not tilting at the “a drug free America” windmill. 

So what if some illegal cultivation still happens? It is happening already despite our best efforts. What do we lose? Nothing and anyways, Does this preclude the Afghan police from combating smuggling? Does this prevent NATO and the government from setting up reconstruction and opium purchasing programs with conditions and safeguards to discourage illegal cultivation? Nooo 

And what do we have a to gain? We have the opportunity to bring half of Afghanistan’s economy out of the shadows, which will increase the governments revenue, allow NATO resources to be focused on our actual enemies and will allow us to really start winning over hearts and minds. 

Continuing the current policy on the other hand will A) Not decrease drug use in the west B) Fund the Taliban C) Defund the government D) Alienate Afghan farmers E) Create more potential Taliban allies among the alienated farmers F) Waste resources on a anti-drug policy which isn’t working, and no one seriously believes will work.

If we are going to win the war in Afghanistan, we are going to need to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.  That isn’t going to happen as long as we are waging war on their economy, turning opium production from a liability to an asset, is smart strategy and if we are truly committed to winning the war on terror we should seriously and urgently explore ways of doing this.

Are we in Afganistan to protect the American people from Islamist terrorists, or to continue failed drug policies?

Are we in Afghanistan to protect the American people from Islamist terrorists, or to continue failed drug policies?


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