Poppy-Free, At Long Long Long Last

by Joshua Foust on 4/28/2008 · 1 comment

Whom to believe: an embed in Helmand, or UNODC? This is problem materializes when looking at the effectiveness of anti-poppy measures in Afghanistan. Tom Coghland—who writes for the same paper that pushed a dubious report claiming farmers were planting wheat instead of opium—writes that Afghanistan is seeing a “significant decrease” in opium cultivation. The UNODC, meanwhile, worries (pdf) in its 2008 rapid assessment that “cultivation levels will be broadly similar to, perhaps slightly lower than, last year’s record harvest.”

Coghland quotes several Afghan officials in making hilarious claims like “Nangarhar will be poppy-free in 2008,” and that even in Helmand there will be a major decrease in cultivation. The UNODC, on the other hand, relies on field visits and interviews with farmers (who have their own incentives), and believes there will be a slight-to-moderate decrease in Nangarhar along with a stable-to-severe increase in cultivation in the south and west—in other words, there is a growing concentration of opium cultivation into the most unstable provinces while the north and east slowly stabilize.

The UNODC’s report seems more in line with reality with Coghland’s reliance on official sources (the interviews with “two low level opium smugglers” didn’t reveal anything more significant than some success in anti-corruption). Coghland, too, quotes “western officials” as saying the rising cost of wheat will prompt more cultivation next year in Nangarhar. How this coexists with his paper’s previous report than high wheat prices were prompting less poppy cultivation in Helmand is unclear. None of this means Coghland is wrong or inaccurate, just that his sources make me skeptical of his claims.

But before everyone goes clapping their hands at how awesome bulldozing farms can be, consider the weather:

Freak weather linked to global warming is expected to reduce parts of the country’s opium harvest drastically. Scientists believe freezing winter temperatures followed by late rains and a possible drought may cut this year’s yields, with some farmers losing half of their crop.

The fierce winter cold – which claimed hundreds of lives across Afghanistan – is thought to have stopped millions of poppy seeds from germinating. Late rains have then stunted many of the plants that survived.

One expert said: “It was too cold in some areas for the seeds to come alive. Between 30 per cent and 50 per cent of the seeds may not have germinated.”

Well. Maybe global warming will save the day after all. Because so far, billions of dollars of counter-productive eradication efforts have not. That small sentence about the value of making eradication officials more resistant to bribery is the great buried lede in Coghland’s story—in indicates corruption is the problem, not opium. Similarly, Nangarhar’s level of cultivation seems to closely track with general levels of chaos and insecurity—precisely the theory I’ve been pushing the last eighteen months.

Both data points, and others from reports in the drug war in South Asia, indicate governance and stability matter a helluva lot more than simply fanning policemen into the fields to hack at poppy plants. Why those initiatives remain starved for resources while eradication is flooded with cash is a mystery.


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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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{ 1 comment }

Oldschool Boy April 29, 2008 at 1:22 pm

What a convenience. Everything today is to blame or to thank (e.g. Al Gore’s Nobel Prize) the Global Warming.

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