Why grow poppy?

by Joshua Foust on 3/24/2008

Over at Abu Muqawama, Kip has posited a very interesting hypothesis:

Already in the 2007 annual survey on opium production in Afghanistan, UNODC challenged some of the claptrap from the SENLIS Council and other groups who have argued that poverty causes farmers to grow poppy and that eradication then results in those farmers joining the insurgency… In a March report, UNODC methodically puts to rest the issue of poverty as the root cause for regional opium production.

And here I thought the Senlis Council’s biggest crime was in pushing drug legalization. Kip quotes the report, which argues there is a stronger correlation between security and opium production, rather than poverty and opium production. He notes that in the south, farmers can grow other crops and “still make more than farmers anywhere else in the country (although less than they would growing poppy).” This is an incoherent statement, however. The biggest problem facing Alternative Livelihood programs isn’t the farm-gate price of produce—as entrepreneur/aid workers like Sarah Chayes have demonstrated, if the market is available, farmers will sell their produce rather than their poppy—it is infrastructure. Put simply, pomegranates grown in Kandahar cannot reach any real markets before they rot.

Kip continues:

Even more importantly, in areas where agricultural assistance was provided within a secure environment, poppy production was greatly decreased. In areas without security, agriculture assistance had a far smaller impact, further suggesting that insurgency and poppy cultivation are far more intertwined than poverty and insurgency.

This is, flatly, wrong. Nangarhar used to be one of the great success stories of the counternarcotics campaign, but the story there is that “agricultural assistance” is not nearly enough: you simply cannot replace the income poppy brings in without drastic changes beyond some seed distribution. Indeed, that same 2007 UNODC report notes that Nangarhar saw a 285% jump in poppy cultivation, after production had dropped to nearly zero in the two years before. The reason is that, even with some crop substitution efforts in place, without opium to pump baseline cash into the local economy, everything crashed. (For details on this, and for the data that follows, see this profile of Nangarhar governor Gul Agha Sherzai.)

Now, one cannot separate the security argument, but security is a second-order driver. Violence in Nangarhar increased by 73% only after (or perhaps as) poppy cultivation rose precipitously; consequentially it also saw an alarming number of U.S. accidental killings of innocent civilians.

It is that process, not eradication itself, that drives big portions of the insurgency. There is no doubt that there is a strong correlation between security and poppy—almost by definition, there must be. But correlation is not causation, and that is the error both Kip and UNODC seem to be making.

As I’ve argued elsewhere:

The big problem with [alternative livelihood] 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.

In other words, addressing opium requires a vast, multi-dimensional approach, combining anti-corruption efforts (which stymie local development and police forces), a massive influx of money for road and market and electricity production (which is nearly impossible in the current security situation), as a great deal more price and even subsidization of food or other cash crops. Simply pinning the problem on “security” is a bit daft, as poverty is a primary driver (in Afghanistan, if not elsewhere) of insecurity.

Indeed, the argument here has become a bit repetitive: focusing only on opium misses the point. It is treating symptoms but not the disease. It is wiping up blood but neglecting the cut. Opium is an indicator, not a cause. Far more fundamental problems drive opium production—corruption, isolation, bad infrastructure, dire poverty (you cannot rule out poverty when Afghanistan is literally one of the poorest countries on Earth), and security. Security is a factor, yes, but only one among many. At the moment, the Alternative Livelihood programs are horribly underfunded, one of the many promises we made to post-Taliban Afghanistan we have broken. But security is pitifully funded, as well—we simply do not have enough troops to make a meaningful difference.

This is because security and development are inextricably linked—you cannot have one without the other. And comprehensive approaches are precisely what have been sorely lacking in all the talk of Afghanistan’s many troubles. There is a tremendous, if simplified, look at issues like opium production on the macro, national level. But there is very littler consideration as to what impact these policies have at the micro, local level. It happened in Nangarhar: kill opium, plant wheat. People nearly starved. Tip O’Neill’s maxim is as true in Afghanistan as it is in the U.S.: all politics is local. Without a focus on the specific, local issues that induce farmers to grow poppy, we will never achieve a victory over it.


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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 Registan.net. 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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