Defeating Dorothy’s Menace: The Pernicious Problem of Opium, and Why We Should Stop Trying to Stop It

by Joshua Foust on 7/2/2007 · 1 comment

My latest piece, on why the U.S. should stop trying to eradicate opium and instead focus on more constructive problems like poverty or infrastructure, is in the July issue of Pragati: The Indian National Interest Review. You can download it here (pdf). There are some really interesting articles in there, especially the one on India’s soft power push in Africa. I suggest checking the whole thing out. (Whole text is below the jump)

Defeating Dorothy’s Menace:
The Pernicious Problem of Opium, and Why We Should Stop Trying to Stop It
By Joshua Foust

It is something of an axiom that opium production is bad for a developing economy. The presence of drug smugglers and attendant corruption, the crime, the general breakdown of the rule of law and legitimacy of the state, all present major issues to developing into a modern, stable country. In Afghanistan, which supplies something like 80% of the world’s opium, this problem seems especially acute, as its presence has prevented much of the rural and agricultural development many think is necessary to pull the country into the 21st century.

This belief is wrong. That is because opium is not a cause of any of Afghanistan’s problems, but rather a symptom. Before the Soviet invasion in 1979, Afghanistan was known more for its orchards and western hippies than anything else. It was only the rise of the mujahideen, and warlordism in general, that resulted in the harvest of poppies—selling drugs to buy guns, as it were. As the country deteriorated throughout the 90’s, opium production increased dramatically, especially as the Taliban actively encouraged its cultivation. International pressure finally forced them into a prohibition in 2000, right when their control was peaking.

In this sense, opium can be seen as an indicator of societal chaos—more opium production indicates greater chaos and anarchy, as does the opposite. Such an indicator is imprecise at best, but still illustrative: after the Taliban were removed and Afghanistan’s barely-there economy collapsed, opium production soared. As the Taliban began its much-touted counteroffensive in 2004, opium production reached levels previously unheard of—upwards of 4,500 tons each year. Even more alarmingly, this massive increase did not result in a reduction in price. Prices seemed to rise in accordance with production, a potential feedback loop with an unknown upper limit.

Focusing on the elimination of opium production, however, misses the point. Afghan farmers don’t grow poppies because they like to, or because they get a secret thrill out of supplying Europeans their smack (Americans get most of their heroin from Colombia and Mexico). Afghan farmers grow opium because it is all they can grow with variable water levels, bad or non-existent irrigation systems, and an unreachable global or regional market for other agricultural staples.

Fixing the economic reasons behind opium production, then, rather than its production, must be the ultimate solution. One group that has grown in prominence on the issue is the Senlis Council, a UK think tank that advocates legalizing opium production for medicinal uses. While they claim success with similar programs in Turkey and India, legalization would present far more problems than it would solve.

For one, neither country is analogous to Afghanistan. In Turkey, actual opium is not harvested manually as in Afghanistan, but a substance called concentrate of poppy straw, or CPS, is harvested mechanically. India’s program involves manual cultivation, but farmers are legally prohibited from harvesting beyond 0.10 hectare, which, despite output-dependent prices, would indicate a great deal of illicit funneling takes place alongside the legal 1/10 hectare. In addition, the institutional and legal infrastructure is not in place in Afghanistan to handle licensing or inspection.

On a grander scale, the global market for legal opiates is saturated. A comparatively small number of people in chronic pain use opiates. Whether through economics or culture, demand is not growing with the number of people who can afford them. This creates economic pressure not to produce additional opium—removing one of the main reasons licensed opium production would be an attractive solution.

Eradication—destroying opium crops—is counterproductive as well. If the mess of Colombia is not a sufficient reason, then examining Laos or Burma (Myanmar) would indicate others. Not only is it impossible to prevent replanting after a spray job or bulldoze, such a policy tends to undercut the support and legitimacy of the national government, which is crucial given that illicit opium production occurs where government control and legitimacy is at its weakest. Eradication angers the locals without providing them any other way of feeding themselves or making money—a counterproductive policy when the government is battling an insurgency.

Alternative Livelihood (AL) programs have become the latest development trend in drug producing areas. There are some lingering problems with them, namely severe under-funding and an unintentional association with the hated eradication procedures, but those are easy to account for. The big problem with AL programs is they run into the same problem legalization does—price. In Afghanistan it is difficult to grow a crop of cereal grain at profit, and the security situation makes maintaining orchards or other higher-value crops extremely difficult. In addition, even assuming food products could be easily grown and sold, there is no transportation infrastructure to move them. Opium can be moved because it fetches so much money and doesn’t really spoil. If a crop of pomegranates is grown on a farm near Kandahar, for instance, it would cost far too much to transport them to a market before they spoil, as the only way to quickly move them would be by air. In the absence of a seaport or highway or rail network, aircraft are the only means of quickly moving produce—and transporting by air is expensive.

So, what is to be done about opium? Why not nothing? Focusing on opium, even on ways of replacing opium, misses the point. Opium is not the problem. Afghanistan’s problem is horrendous poverty, bad infrastructure and no security. When it comes to all three, Afghanistan faces two major hurdles—underinvestment (money, equipment, education, health, and security) and illegitimacy. The overwhelming majority of aid in the country flows outside government channels or oversight, which undercuts Kabul’s legitimacy even among the people it helps.

Investing only in security will not end opium’s pernicious hold over Afghanistan, though it is essential. Security investments, however, must include troops specifically trained to deal with the local languages and culture, and in sufficient numbers to prevent retaliatory measures by the Taliban. The police and National Army (ANA) units should be trained not by corrupt Colombian counternarcotics officers as is now the case, but by special forces and other soldiers specializing in peace keeping, institution building, and power projection. Security must also be only a compliment to further investment in road construction, electricity production, schools, and hospitals, and it all must travel through official government channels.

This is a very long-term solution, but it has the best chance of working. Building up Kabul’s institutional capacity to handle large-scale reconstruction efforts on its own and protecting locals from retaliation—simultaneously—is the only way such a system can come into place. The current methods, with an over-focus on and underinvestment in military-style security, along with eradication and crippled, non-government development programs, has resulted in chaos and misery. It is time for a change.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 1 comment }

BlueBerry Pick'n July 5, 2007 at 1:04 pm

addressing: “Opium economics: Madelaine Drohan – Value Added”, CBC

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… but wear the Glove!

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