Saturday, August 30, 2008

The real problem in Afghanistan

This always struck me as the real problem Afghanistan: The drug trade. Unbelievably, Afghanistan supplies a full 93 percent of the world's opium. There are billions of narcodollars floating around Afghanistan, and these profits are used to fund and arm the escalating insurgency there.[1]

My question is this: why don't they just overfly and spray the fields? It sure looks like an obvious solution. The trend of agricultural drug harvesting is not friendly:
"The last report showed a 17 percent rise in poppy cultivation from 2006 to 2007, and a whopping 34 percent rise in opium production, a level expected to be maintained in this year's harvest."[1]
More crops equal more guns, and thus more headaches for U.S. policy. I suspected, and a recent Newsweek article confirms, that it's really about allowing the only available cash-crop on the market to bolster the non-economy there in Afghanistan:
"[B]oosting eradication efforts in unstable areas could prove disastrous, depriving farmers of their only source of income, alienating a key swing demographic and driving large numbers of people to side with the insurgency. None of Afghanistan's legal crops can compete with the income generated from poppies, estimated by the U.N. at $5,000 per hectare. As a result, they say, most farmers are stuck between a rock and a hard place, with warlords demanding taxes on one side and eradicators on the other. Analysts say removing a main source of income before stable governance is established could make last week's resistance a harbinger of many more battles to come."[1]
So the U.S. is apparently holding back its eradication efforts; because, we'd rather have 93% of the world's opium floating around, and a dangerous trend in terrorist funding continue than risk the farmers in Afghanistan voting in ways that might not support a puppet government there. One can see the alternative to the Iraq philosophy in this case: Instead of going in with a big occupying surge, we wait outside and prop-up the drug crop industry, all the while hoping we can by-off (or knock-off) a few key cartel-warlord bosses. Maybe then, apparently, the whole system will magically collapse or make the nascent government suddenly popular and competent. Obviously, I'm not impressed by this line of reasoning. Again, it's the economics. Consider how much of the opium trade is tied to Afghanistan's economy:
"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."
The key item is the last sentence: this crop is half their GDP! Obama claims that if elected president he will redistribute troops into Afghanistan, but I'd be more impressed if he'd commit to a schedule to eliminate opium growth, which is the real financial backing of terrorist activity.

Just this week, U.S. News and World Report noted that Afghanistan is by far still the world's #1 opium producer, even though the northern half of the country has virtually stamped out opium production. [3] But the southern part of the country is a problematic as ever. The U.N. just reported that "98% of the opium is grown in just seven provinces in the south-west (Hilmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Farah, Nimroz, and to a lesser extent Daykundi and Zabul), where there are permanent Taliban settlements and organized crime groups profit from insecurity."[4] Fortunately, there has been a slow-down in production due to bad weather. Furthermore, this allows wheat to be much more attractive as a substitute crop. Normally, the profit margin of opium to wheat is 10:1, but this year's weather has made it merely 3:1, [4] alleviating some of the pressure on the farmers who might consider wheat an option. We'll see. A year from now will be the next harvest, and there will be a new president in office. Watch and see how troop deployments are used. If the opium fields are cut down, then the U.S. is serious about change; otherwise, it will end up be another drawn-out, bumbling military occupation.


[image] Brent Stirton Photojournalist Accessed (August 27, 2008)

[1] Katie Paul |"Opium Wars: Afghanistan's narcotics trade is back with a vengeance. Washington's latest antidrug plan is unlikely to curb it." Newsweek (online) March 8, 2008. (Accessed August 27, 2008)

[2] "Opium Brides on the Rise in Afghanistan as Government Moves to
Eradicate Opium Production
" Reuters March 30, 2008 (Accessed August 27, 2008)

[3] Sam Dealy "Time to Target the Taliban Drug Cartel" U.S. News and World Report August 29, 2008. (Accessed August 30, 2008)

[4] "Opium cultivation in Afghanistan down by a fifth" UN Office on Drugs and Crime August 26, 2008 (Accessed August 30, 2008)


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