Thinking about Alternative Livelihoods

by Joshua Foust on 11/11/2007 · 1 comment

Matthew Eckel, guest writing at Foreign Policy Watch, notes an intriguing phenomenon:

A few days ago an interesting article was published in the Times about how, in certain areas of Afghanistan, poppy eradication efforts have led Afghan farmers to begin growing cannabis in their stead. I found this a particularly intriguing piece because I have often considered (in a somewhat un-serious, thought experiment kind of way) the notion of actively encouraging Afghan cannabis production in order to provide a viable cash crop to the country’s population without flooding the global heroin market and giving a commercial base to the Taliban.

Much of the post that follows attempts to disarm the instinctive anti-pot reflex that seems to infect a lot of American political discourse (leaving out surprising and welcome advocates such as William F. Buckley, Jr.)—which is a useful exercise, given the growing inertia of pot legalization advocates. But in the process of doing so Eckel seems to gloss over the most important point of such a policy. Eckel writes:

Ideally, a regime of “semi-legality” for cannabis could be constructed in Afghanistan – a gray market if you will – whereby growers and traffickers that did not funnel resources to the Taliban would not be targeted by Afghan or NATO troops, and would be permitted to do business relatively openly, while those that did would be dealt with harshly. This would create a profit incentive to avoid dealing with insurgents, as the cost of such “Taliban” product would increase relative to “clean” product because of the extra costs imposed by operating on the black market. Farmers would still have a profitable cash crop (and one with traditional roots in Afghanistan at that), and the Taliban would see their resource base decline.

Such a program is a great idea, and actually has precedent in Turkey and India with opium, until one considers the severe institutional barriers such a plan would face—barriers that make legitimizing marijuana in Afghanistan just as problematic as legitimizing opium (a realization that was a long time coming). In the Afghan situation—with a weak central government, widespread anarchy, and an active insurgency with international support—the idea of somehow collecting taxes, enforcing regulations, and rehabilitating the most underfunded nation building exercise the United States has conducted in sixty years is probably a bit too audacious to be practical.

World Centers of Opium Production
Afghanistan is at the center of global opium production.

Indeed, in a corruption-based drug culture, which certainly exists in many of Afghanistan’s producing provinces, makes gray markets practically impossible: there would be no way of determining who sells to the Taliban for export, who sells to regular drug lords for export, and who sells to drug lords that hire the Taliban for security. Rumors and supposition would not work in such an arrangement, and even the semi-legitimacy such a policy would confer on some marijuana producers but not others would not eliminate or even necessarily diminish the commercial attractiveness of opium.

The problem is, I don’t think a lot of the counternarcotics people truly understand the market for opium. In terms of legalized narcotics grown for pharmaceutical purposes, all indications are that the current market for them (especially opiates) is totally saturated, which forces price down, which makes licit opium cultivation less attractive. For marijuana, a similar dynamic is in play: even a gray market in Afghanistan, which is a good idea on its own, would funnel supplies into the same groups of international drug lords that create multitudinous problems around the rest of the planet. In a sense, it would be exporting Afghanistan’s drug problem.

Yet, despite this market saturation, and despite the increasing bounty of opium that floods the market each year (no one knows what Afghanistan’s theoretical upper production limit may be), price continues to climb. There have been no reports of a dramatic up-tick in heroin demand anywhere—no European cities (the vast majority of Afghan opium travels to Europe and Russia through Tajikistan and Iran) have seen an alarming increase in shivering junkies on the street, even if, tragically, they have become an increasingly depressing site in Afghanistan itself.

Either the opium market behaves unlike any other commodity market, including the illegal ones, or no one really knows how it works. Similarly, while the market for marijuana is vast—especially in the U.S., where it has been fetishized to a comic degree—no one knows how big it is, or even more importantly how a gray market in Afghanistan would interact with decidedly black markets in the U.S. and the rest of the world save Holland.

I agree with Eckel that cannabis cultivation should be encouraged—at the least, it is less pernicious than opium, and frankly, potheads are far less a social ill than junkies shooting smack. And Eckel does bracket his proposition—which, unlike most commentary on the issue, has a great deal of thought behind it—with caveats, including the realization that it would never have domestic American support and would unravel Afghanistan. But there is a better solution in either case: do nothing.

It is very common refrain in this space. Allow me to quote an essay I wrote earlier this year:

[F]ocusing 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 [i.e. the Human Terrain System, which was far too long in coming —ed.], 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 of plans.

Indeed. What I said.

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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 }

Admiral November 11, 2007 at 9:13 pm

Dead on! It’s amazing how powerful the knee-jerk reaction regarding any sort of *discussion* of sensible policy regarding opium or marijuana can be in the States. The revenues for “guerrillas” aren’t going anywhere — in Mexico or Afghanistan.

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