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Narcocalm

Oxblog's Afghanistan Correspondent has another dispatch up recording some much-needed continued successes. The Karzai government appears to be doing a good job of slowly, but surely bringing the country under government control, while his main opponents are forming a proper democratic opposition rather than taking up arms. The fly in the ointment continues to be the opium situation. Or, perhaps a better way to put it, the risk of a bad response to the opium situation:

Finally, on the issue of the narco-economy: it's cause for concern, but not panic. In five years, if the best efforts of the international donor community haven't provided real alternatives (crops and credit) to the opium economy, then it'll be time to make comparisons between Afghanistan and Colombia. For now, of course the farmers are planting poppy -- their land has been degraded, their roads and other infrastructure devastated. They need a crop that gets maximum profit per acre and doesn't perish en route from farm to market. They also need credit; a loan up front from poppy traders is a major incentive to get into the cultivation business. We can provide these things. I've found farmers to be generally interested if skeptical when presented with alternative crops, and very interested in alternative sources of income and credit to keep them out of the traffickers' debt in the first place.

Poppy cultivation is going to drop this year, though after last year's bumper crop, that's not saying much. The US and Afghan government eradication efforts have targeted the provinces that cultivated the most opium last year. In the two most populous of these provinces (southern Helmand and eastern Nangarhar) this has had a major impact. The governors and local authorities in Helmand and Nangarhar have reduced overt opium cultivation by at least 60% (though in remote valleys and inside walled compounds, large poppy fields persist). This will likely mean an increase in districts with weaker government control (Orozgan and Ghor in central-southern Afghanistan, Paktika, Khost, and Kunar in the east), but overall there will be less poppy cultivation this year. Can this be sustained next year without social unrest? That'll depend on the state of the Afghan economy, and whether people believe there are alternatives.

This seems about right to me. If our strategy is too heavily weighted toward eradication, there's going to be a problem. If eradication is kept in perspective and put alongside real aid to economic development, then continued steady management by Karzai should keep the country on the path to stability.

April 13, 2005 | Permalink

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So, when the farmers move away from poppies into other crops, do the drug dealers simply walk away & say oh well? The post mentions loans to farmers from the drug dealers to start up poppie crops. What if a farmer transitions over to another crop before the debt (at least in the eyes of the druglords) is paid in full? Do the druglords write the debt off as a loss & walk away?

Seems to me the druglords would be likely to try to hold onto the land & crops with threats of violence & actual violence. Would the farmers be offered military protection if they opted to stop growing poppies?

Lotta questions.

Posted by: raff | Apr 13, 2005 4:56:47 PM

OR-- how about legalize the drug trade, and regulate, and tax? Instead of burning opium fields in Afghanistan and bombing cocoa fields in South America, why not have our special forces, I don't know, hunting terrorists? What possible subsidies or substitute crops are going to take the place of poppies in terms of cash, given the current insane profit motive created by criminalization? Or at a minimum, can't we get the Afghan farmers involved in the already legal business of opium production for medicinal opiates? Wouldn't that be A LOT easier than what we are trying to do right now?

Posted by: Jeff | Apr 13, 2005 5:14:02 PM

Must ... supress ... gloating!

Posted by: Al | Apr 13, 2005 5:23:55 PM

The only problem is opium, i.e., the country's whole economy.

OK, gotcha. One problem at a time. What's Al gloating about? Is he on some good shit?

Posted by: John Emerson | Apr 13, 2005 5:41:08 PM

Karzai announced that the Afghan government will be making agreements about "military cooperation" with the US. That means permanent bases, or "forward operating locations," or whatever the fuck you want to call them. Let's roll!

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Apr 13, 2005 6:01:08 PM

"They need a crop that gets maximum profit per acre and doesn't perish en route from farm to market."

Can we get them to substitute marijuana for poppies?

Posted by: Petey | Apr 13, 2005 6:07:07 PM

Um, the profits an average afghan farmer makes from growing opium are considerably higher than the income he can receive by growing, regular, legal crops. Also, large sections of Afghan polity have a heavy stake in the drug trade, and I am fairly sure these sections include Karzai. It is somewhat unrealistic to believe that this would go away so easily. There was a sharp decrease in opium production earlier as well, during the Taliban's rule, when a particular year had practically no opium crop in comparison to previous years. This had the effect of making the existing opium reserves with the Taliban more valuable, and increased their revenue flow. I remember that there was similar optimism that the U.N's drug eradication program was working at that time.

The long term trends are that Afghan opium production has consistently increased in the past two decades, and opium cultivation has spread to pretty much all Afghan provinces (in varying amounts). A look at the very detailed U.N reports on this topic should be sufficient to convince one of this.

Posted by: v | Apr 13, 2005 6:13:07 PM

Can we get them to substitute marijuana for poppies?

By weight, marijuana sells for maybe 5% of what heroin does. As long as there are enough junkies to support a heroin market, Afghani farmers are much better off growing poppies than pot.

Of course, the incentives would be dramatically different if drugs weren't illegal. Apparently, ongoing narcoterror is preferable to sane drug laws.

Posted by: bobo brooks | Apr 13, 2005 6:26:21 PM

"By weight, marijuana sells for maybe 5% of what heroin does."

I'm not familiar with the mechanics of the smack trade, but I'd guess those farmers are transporting poppies to market, not refined heroin, which would change the equation a bit...

Posted by: Petey | Apr 13, 2005 6:31:56 PM

What a gong show. If you've been paying attention, what we've learned over the past 30 years is that nothing we do about (supply side of your choice) will have any effect on our domestic drug problem. So this year, as in every year of most of our adult lives, legislatures will pass regulations making it harder to get cough medicine. Police will look for people of color who can be searched. Helicoptors will spray poison on people who are too poor to do anything but move, if that. Pundits will speculate about how long it will take to "solve" the problem that funds the CIA's favorite terrorists and gangsters. And the rest of the world will have another iota of their far-from-endless patience used up by the clueless Americans.

God, I hope somebody thinks this is fun, for what it's costing us. The Neverending Story.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 13, 2005 6:36:53 PM

Mr. Catowner,

From what I can tell most people in the world are even less open to legalizing drugs than are Americans. I am most familiar with Southeast Asia, and everywhere there they treat trafficers much worse than the US does, in China and Indonesia and Malaysia at least they sometimes execute them.

I can't think of a country in the Americas either where hard drugs are legal, and it isn't because the Americans are against them.

Posted by: luisalegria | Apr 13, 2005 6:53:34 PM

Well, last time I looked coca and marijuana were legal in Colombia. That may have changed now that Uribe needs the U.S. military and weapons to keep himself in power. Coca is probably legal in Bolivia and Peru.

The fact that, when the U.S. was the most powerful nation in the world, it was able to force other countries to ban drugs, doesn't mean much in this changing situation.

BTW, I don't think we use the honorific with the term 'catowner'. It's a democracy though- I'll refer it to a cat committee. Don't expect concensus anytime soon among the cats.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 13, 2005 7:03:03 PM

I'm not familiar with the mechanics of the smack trade, but I'd guess those farmers are transporting poppies to market, not refined heroin, which would change the equation a bit...

I understand that opium is harvested by slitting the seed pods and collecting the resin. A few years back Harpers ran an article about opium poppies with lots of interesting info--including the fact that all the poppies that are sold for U.S. gardens are, in fact, quite capable of producing opiates. Apparently it's also possible to brew opium tea by grinding up dried seed pods. Ah, a version of the article is online here:

http://balder.prohosting.com/~adhpage/arc_pw/opiumeasy_cache.html

So anyway, I believe whatever form the farmers are storing and transporting the opium in is not at all bulky.

Posted by: mw | Apr 13, 2005 7:23:34 PM

Actually not ALL poppies make opium. Washington state has a state trooper who spends the entire summer traveling the state looking for the wrong color poppy (no, I am not making this up). Opium is made as described above, a friend of mine made about a quarter pound one year by slitting the poppies and collecting the resin, but neither of us were interested enough to try smoking it, so I can't tell you any more about that.

He learned it from the Hmong people, who just naturally kept growing opium after they came to Seattle. They use it for a lot of stuff, have for centuries, and just didn't think anyone would mind.

Nobody did, until the "wrong color poppy cop" came by one day. I guess he saw red. Or whatever color is the wrong color.

Aw the heck with it. Think I'll grow morning glories this year.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 13, 2005 7:39:45 PM

Imagine how much faster things would be going if we'd invested a tenth more of the effort into Afghanistan as we put into Iraq. Sigh.

But now that we are where we are, does anyone have leads on good NGOs and the like where a concerned citizen can pitch in or drop spare change to help things along? Just curious what people here think.

Posted by: Saheli | Apr 13, 2005 9:08:58 PM

Actually not ALL poppies make opium.

Maybe not, but according to the Harper's article, more than one commonly available garden variety does produce opium. And it's apparently not illegal to grow these varieties--just to harvest and use the opium.

Posted by: mw | Apr 13, 2005 9:14:41 PM

Imagine how much faster things would be going if we'd invested a tenth more of the effort into Afghanistan as we put into Iraq. Sigh.

Maybe not. You could make the argument that, if not for the bigger stage of Iraq, the islamofascists would have made Afghanistan the front lines in their war on the U.S.?

Posted by: mw | Apr 13, 2005 9:18:02 PM

Imagine how much faster things would be going if we'd invested a tenth more of the effort into Afghanistan as we put into Iraq. Sigh.

Or maybe use all the money we've flushed down the Iraq rathole to just buy the Afghan opium crop and then burn it..

Posted by: Geoduck | Apr 14, 2005 4:48:06 AM

(Safety warning) It may not be illegal everywhere to grow opium poppies, but it is in Washington State, and they DO prosecute when they want to. The State Patrol can tell which kind is o-k.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 14, 2005 11:45:08 AM

Cynics may note that opium and derivatives have a shelf live of several years (unlike cocaine) and that the current reductions may well be welcomed by the trafficers who bought last year's crop cheaply and can now sell into a tighter market.

Posted by: snoey | Apr 14, 2005 12:23:41 PM

Problems from an effort to eradicate opium poppy farming?
If drug war insanity is good enough for the US, it's damn skippy good enough for the Afghanistanis.

Year before Bush takes over Afghanistan: little opium, hyper-religious subsistence farmers. Year after Bush takes over: pseudo democracy dependent on narcoterrorists and the kindness of foreigners.

The deaths of Americans from the narcotic trade used to be evidence of evil, now its cooperation.

Praise Jesus and pass the ammo.

Posted by: epistemology | Apr 14, 2005 10:02:14 PM

luisalegria:

From what I can tell most people in the world are even less open to legalizing drugs

You see, you can make black white if you get to define your terms.

Drugs are legal all over the world: cigarettes, alcohol, caffeine, etc. And nobody wants to ban them all. In 2003 the US government claims 400,000 died from tobacco, 100,000 died from alcohol, and 20,000 died from all other recreational drugs combined.

I see a light at the end of the tunnel. How about you luisalegria?

Posted by: epistemology | Apr 14, 2005 10:10:38 PM

I also liked the way Luisalegria counted the Chinese as part of the "most of the people" opposed to legalization. Last time I heard, a billion Chinese had no say in what their government calls 'legal'. What's that you say? Oh, right- the Russians, Saudi Arabians, Egyptians, etc etc also have no voice in their government's drug policies. Kinda like us, in fact.

Posted by: serial catowner | Apr 15, 2005 8:07:39 AM

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