Kabul, Beirut, Same Thing

by Joshua Foust on 7/30/2008 · 14 comments

Seriously, who would we mock if Tom Friedman weren’t around?

The truth is that Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Pakistan are just different fronts in the same war. The core problem is that the Arab-Muslim world in too many places has been failing at modernity, and were it not for $120-a-barrel oil, that failure would be even more obvious. For far too long, this region has been dominated by authoritarian politics, massive youth unemployment, outdated education systems, a religious establishment resisting reform and now a death cult that glorifies young people committing suicide, often against other Muslims.

The humiliation this cocktail produces is the real source of terrorism. Saddam exploited it. Al Qaeda exploits it. Pakistan’s intelligence services exploit it. Hezbollah exploits it. The Taliban exploit it.

The only way to address it is by changing the politics. Producing islands of decent and consensual government in Baghdad or Kabul or Islamabad would be a much more meaningful and lasting contribution to the war on terrorism than even killing bin Laden in his cave. But it needs local partners. The reason the surge helped in Iraq is because Iraqis took the lead in confronting their own extremists — the Shiites in their areas, the Sunnis in theirs. That is very good news — although it is still not clear that they can come together in a single functioning government.

The main reason we are losing in Afghanistan is not because there are too few American soldiers, but because there are not enough Afghans ready to fight and die for the kind of government we want.

This is just breathtaking in its incoherence. Afghans aren’t willing to die for their new future? Someone should tell that to the families of the thousands of ANA and ANP officers who actually have given their lives for a safer and more secure Afghanistan. The surge worked but it might not. All of these failing or failed developing and developed countries with different histories and different problems are really the same thing because they’re not modern.

Seriously, words fail.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

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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Ian July 30, 2008 at 10:46 am

Oh admit Josh F, you didn’t like the article just because he quotes Rory Stewart.

Kidding. Although I’m still not completely convinced that just putting more numbers into Afghanistan is really the solution–you yourself show that the Want incident wasn’t a matter of being undersourced, it was a matter of intel. And my sense is that the airstrike approach isn’t being driven by a lack of men with guns, but by politics.

I understand this puts me on the side of people you hate (Ann Marlowe, Rory Stewart), but the Dem push to jump out of the Iraq frying pan into Afghanistan needs to have some principles and a plan behind it.

On legalization–tell me what you think of this idea. We’ve done it before, in Af-Pak, with another form of contraband. Why can’t the American Special Ops/CIA community intervene in the market and pay much a higher price per kg of opium than the market can really bear? It’d probably cost a couple billion but then at least we’d know we control the market. We did it with the Stinger buy-back program and it worked surprisingly well.

Joshua Foust July 30, 2008 at 10:54 am

Actually, Ian, I stopped reading after that section I quoted. It was too much to continue. So I didn’t know he quoted Rory Stewart (whom I don’t dislike, I just think he’s naïve).

And what you’re saying has become the standard conventional wisdom approach to the conventional wisdom of adding more troops. And it’s right — simply adding more troops without a plan to use them is beyond folly, it is suicide. Do you really think 10,000 soldiers would be deployed there without a plan to use them?

Remember last year, when I was agitating for more troops, that was considered folly — not because more troops wouldn’t help, but because we didn’t need them. It is remarkable how the rhetoric has shifted on this topic, especially now that the challenge of being able to hold territory because of lack of manpower has been so painfully highlighted.

As for legalization: the drugs trade and the weapons trade work very differently. On a basic level, there is a vastly greater market for heroin than there is for traceable anti-aircraft missiles. And the methods of supply are different — if Afghanistan was building its own stinger missiles, we would not have offered to buy them all back. When the drug lords can simply grow more opium, by purchasing opium we are simply making the problem worse.

Ian July 30, 2008 at 11:07 am

How does state purchasing of opium make matters worse? I ask not because I’m doubting it, but because I don’t know why it would.

Let me be more specific about my hypothetical plan: the US and the Af government could partner to make a state monopoly out of the opium market, thereby cutting out the relationship of the drug lords to the farmer. What I’m saying is, rather than Joel going out into the countryside of Helmand to hire workers away from opium growing, or to make up for their lost job because of spraying, just have him go out to the countryside and tell farmers that he’ll double what the local dealer is paying him.

Ian July 30, 2008 at 11:09 am

By the way, I completely agree about Friedman–ridiculously wide angle lens that misses the details altogether.

Ian July 30, 2008 at 11:12 am

Oh, one other aspect of my brilliant plan: if a farmer prefers to reject Joel’s excellent offer, his fields get eradicated (by spraying or bulldozing, take your pick).

Joshua Foust July 30, 2008 at 11:18 am


Because opium can be replenished, you’re not buying up a finite supply, as with the stinger missiles. It can be replenished. So you turn the state into a drug lord. In countries where opium has been legalized for pharmaceutical puroses such as Turkey and India there still exists an enormous grey market where farmers grow beyond their government-enforced maximums and sell the excess to drug lords. In Afghanistan, where the state is far less functional, far more corrupt, and far less “present” in the countryside, such a situation would essentially legalize drug lordism — which I think we want to avoid.

Plus there are domestic political considerations — how long do you think a politician could stay in office on the “we’re buying as much afghan heroin as we can” platform?

Ian July 30, 2008 at 11:28 am

My heuristic hypothesis would be to do exactly that: for the Af state, with the muscle of the US military behind it, to become a drug lord. In fact, the best of all drug lords, because then they could keep it out of transnational illicit trade networks. It would require not much of a functioning state in the provinces, since punishments for not participating would be physical eradication rather than legal process.

I also do think a program like that could be sold in the US if we suddenly saw the price of opiates in the illegal market spike tremendously (which I think we can assume), thereby putting it out of reach of most drug users. Even though it’s a funny commodity, opium is a commodity and demand must ultimately level off and drop as prices go up.

Josh SN July 30, 2008 at 11:54 am

There is an important relationship that emerges in all contraband markets. Once one steps over the line, the cost of expanding one’s inventory with additional types of contraband is low.

It’s not a coincidence that one group, call them mafia, often controls drugs, gambling, guns and prostitution in a particular area. Certain aspects of the contraband industry, once learned, are useful in the trade in any of its particulars. Examples include learning how to launder money, secure contraband storage, and learning what public officials are corrupt.

Therefore, legalization of heroin eradicates a community of criminals who might consider dealing in weapons, removes some profit from those who already deal in both, and reduces, by millions, the number of people who deal/traffic with these criminals, and who, therefore, might tend to by sympathetic with their interests (i.e. few of America’s heroin users consider Afghani eradication efforts, but I’m sure some have, and can’t think it is all for the best).

If one adds the fact that most criminal enterprises require firearms purchases, I don’t believe it is excessive to say there exists a great deal of corporate “synergy” between the drug and arms trades.

Joshua Foust July 30, 2008 at 11:57 am

In a general sense, yes, absolutely. I was referring specifically to the campaign to recover all of the stinger missiles the U.S. distributed to Afghanistan during the Soviet war. Different problem.

And if we want to talk about efficacy, let’s take a peek at how well our own problems with drugs and guns is going. It’s a major issue we’re just not ready yet to tackle in Afghanistan.

And we haven’t seen a thing yet if we think we can just snatch billions of dollars away from the drug lords and their clients in the government and they’ll do nothing about it. It needs to be eased off the stuff, not cut off.

Ian July 30, 2008 at 12:13 pm

I totally agree that the opium market needs to be eased down rather than cut off cold turkey. The problem right now is that we really don’t have any leverage to bring that about. Having the government intervene in the market would purchase that leverage. If the government had that leverage, it would have a much better chance of gradually trying to replace opium with other cash crops. There’s absolutely no incentive for farmers to do that right now.

Assuming what you mean by “we haven’t seen a thing” is that the drug lords would retaliate militarily? They might, sure, but the source of their funding would be dramatically reduced; you might see an immediate convulsion as the monopoly establishes itself, then they would run dry and their personal armies would disintegrate.

I wasn’t trying to make an exact analogy with Stingers, but what I am trying to say is that the US government has intervened in black markets before. Nor am I writing a policy paper here–I just got accused of giving “the standard conventional wisdom approach to the conventional wisdom” when it came to more troops.” Of course, then when I brainstorm out loud, you say my reveries aren’t wise.

Joshua Foust July 30, 2008 at 8:43 pm

Oh boo boo. I wasn’t being condescending, I just don’t think the solution is that simple. And since when is it a crime to think brainstorming is unwise? Compared with how my own brainstorming on here often gets treated, I’d say I was downright kind.

Ian July 30, 2008 at 9:05 pm

Ahaha. I have to admit I’ve been watching The Wire too much these days to be objective about drug lords.

But seriously, if they’re going to stick thousands more troops into Afghanistan, wouldn’t it also be an opportune time to try something a little different, a little bit surprising? Half of the reason we are treading water, I fear, is because we’re so damn predictable.

Joshua Foust July 30, 2008 at 9:11 pm

Oh geez you’ll get no argument from me. Hell, I don’t think a buy and burn program would be all bad, once the conditions are in place for it. But the gist of my argument is that the conditions do not favor such a solution — right down to and including domestic political opinion. Since we can’t just wish really hard for a pony, we have to think of other solutions.

Mine is to refocus the entire effort onto development — allocate all the incoming troops for area security, and in safe zones conduct massive capacity development to include infrastructure, governance, and local security forces.

Xeno77777 August 7, 2008 at 1:50 am

America has a solution to it Guns
Problem; the Richmond Plan; the
problem is a low I.Q. Verbal of 95,
President. Bush offered the
Author Richmond Plan the post of
Manhattan District Attorney, aban-
doning George W.Bush’s campaign
promised implementation of the
Richmond Plan; Thus minority
and low income neighborhoods
were abandoned to be destroyed
by druggies, with their guns. Why?
Since 1860, All the US Wartime
Enemies’s ruling elites, have been
motivated by a single Ideology.
What? Technically, what is an
Ideology? It is a substitute for
Scientific Philosophy, a variety of
Neo-Platonism, all of whose basis
is an Irrational Allegorical Method,
which having abandoned rationality
must shun, until ready to launch
violent surprise attacks, either
Judicial, as Socrates and Jesus were
victims or, or of Insurgent-Guerilla

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