Hitch on Heroin, and Other Perspectives

by Joshua Foust on 10/8/2008 · 10 comments

Observe, an irrigated poppy farm in 2006:


This is a line of karez wells about 5.5 miles or so just to the north of Lashkar Gah, along the Helmand River. What is striking about this is in the imagery you can see some much older lines of karezes branching off toward the river. The image is from 2006.

The point in sharing this is that, despite being the most observed, and arguably the most “developed” of the provinces of Afghanistan with the exception of Kabul (the Helmand Valley Authority, for example, alongside other developmental projects), Helmand faces enormous environmental constraints thanks to its crumbled infrastructure. This infrastructure cannot improve with the poor security, and even if it used to or is capable of growing more “productive” (in the sense of legal) crops, right now all that is possible in the valley is opium.

That’s not just a base assertion. Several years ago, Adam Pain studied opium cultivation patterns for AREU (pdf) in two similar, neighboring provinces in the north—Kunduz, where cultivation was relatively scarce, and Balkh, where cultivation was prevalent—and found a range of factors probably responsible for more poppies in Balkh and fewer poppies in Kunduz (he was careful to say that this was only inferential). Water shortages, soil moisture and salinity, severe socioeconomic inequality driving food insecurity, a poor presence of formal institutions, all have decisive impacts on a household decision whether or not to cultivate opium. But, while I have heard arguments to the contrary, in a range of areas, the decision to grow opium was an economic, rather than a political, one (this is true in Nangarhar as well).

This is a fairly common argument (pdf), but the nuance and complexity required to formulate policy based off such an understanding is often lacking from popular discourse. Which makes for an excellent segue into this strangely anachronistic (but Reason approved!) essay by Christopher Hitchens. His summary? Buy, don’t burn! This fails as sound policy on many levels.

First, diagnosing the problem:

The potential production could be as high as 8,200 metric tons. And, unsurprisingly, UNODC also reports that the vast bulk of the revenue from this astonishing harvest goes directly to the Taliban or to local warlords and mullahs. Meanwhile, in the guise of liberators, NATO forces appear and tell the Afghan villagers that they intend to burn their only crop. And the American embassy is only restrained by the Afghan government from pursuing a policy of actually spraying this same crop from the air! In other words, the discredited fantasy of Richard Nixon’s so-called “War on Drugs” is the dogma on which we are prepared to gamble and lose the country that gave birth to the Taliban and hospitality to al-Qaida.

A bit of clarity: where else would poppy profits go, if not to regional strongmen or local power brokers? Hitchens is missing the real danger: “local warlords” just as often means “local government official” as any extra-governmental military power (most of the biggest were co-opted into the national government in Kabul). I find the bit about mullahs puzzling: most mullahs in Afghanistan are opposed to opium cultivation, as they see it as un-Islamic. But even if they are getting kickbacks from the trade… so what? The only concern here should be how much opium funds the Taliban.

This funding concern is of paramount importance: if opium is a major source of funding for the Taliban, then it is a critical component of the security strategy to settle the country. If not—if, for example, the use or even coercion of farmers is opportunistic to Taliban methods (i.e. they can separate locals from the government by coercing them into cultivating poppy)—or if opium is a relatively small component of Taliban funding, then the urgency of “what to do” changes somewhat: it is still an important problem, then, but not a world-changing one.

Actually getting at numbers for the Taliban’s funding is rather difficult outside of intelligence circles. In 2003, for example, they were bragging about receiving support from Russia and Iran, as well as wealthy Arab donors. The Russia and Iran charge is dubious, though not 100% impossible. Reporting both before the Neo-Taliban reconstituted itself (see, for example, this Congressional Research Service report [pdf] from October, 2001, or the widespread reporting of the Northern Alliance areas as the primary regions of cultivation) and after (see, for example, this Carlotta Gall report), it is not crystal clear that opium funds a majority of Taliban operations. The Gall report in particular buries this nugget 10 paragraphs down:

The increase in cultivation was mainly a result of the strength of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan, which has left whole districts outside of government control, and the continuing impunity of everyone involved, from the farmers and traffickers to corrupt police and government officials, Mr. Costa said.

Much like Hitchen’s formulation, to assume opium only goes to fund the Taliban is to misconstrue the nature of the problem. Ignoring the copious evidence from the east that opium cultivation is unrelated to a growing insurgency, there is evidence—put forth by the U.S. military, no less, that opium funds about 40% of the Taliban’s operations. And while Mr. Costa, the head of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, the agency that monitors opium cultivation in Afghanistan, notes the correlation of insurgency and cultivation in the South—an opportunistic relationship—he is careful not to draw causation:

But he did not blame only the Taliban for the increase. He specifically accused the former governor of Helmand Province, Sher Muhammad Akhund, of encouraging farmers to grow more poppies in the months before he was removed from office. The result was an increase of 160 percent in that “villain province” from its harvest last year, he said, the highest rise in the country.

“There is evidence of major pressure exerted by him in favor of cultivating opium,” Mr. Costa said.

This isn’t to argue that opium is not a major problem, but that the question of who benefits from its cultivation is not nearly as simple as saying “THE TALIBAN.” This is important, because when you argue the necessity to alter the economic relationships that have solidified over the last twenty years or so, you’re arguing a much bigger question than just poppies. But back to Hitchens:

While in the short term, hard-pressed Afghan farmers should be allowed to sell their opium to the government rather than only to the many criminal elements that continue to infest it or to the Taliban. We don’t have to smoke the stuff once we have purchased it: It can be burned or thrown away or perhaps more profitably used to manufacture the painkillers of which the United States currently suffers a shortage. (As it is, we allow Turkey to cultivate opium poppy fields for precisely this purpose.)

This contains a serious misunderstanding of how opium works in the world economy. From an economics perspective, if the goal is ultimately to starve the Taliban and assorted bad guys of money, then simply buying up raw poppies won’t do much, and will likely increase the incentive to grow more poppy as farmers have a steady customer with a stable purchase price. Beyond the obvious moral hazard, however, is the problem of how Afghan officials tend to behave: there is no way to ensure that purchased opium is actually destroyed (how would one simply discard it?), instead of siphoned away into secondary export markets. If the U.S. runs the program, then the U.S. is delegitimating the Afghan government—surely the opposite goal of a sound counterinsurgency.

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. The U.S. is not really suffering a market-based shortage: all the shortages of opiate painkillers, including chimeras like oxycontin, are regulatory-driven and not supply-driven.

Looking at Turkey and India, both countries where large-scale opiate trafficking was replaced with legal opium cultivation—is nice, but only to a point. Turkey has a strong central government, effective security services, and a formal taxation system. 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. (India is an entirely different can of worms, as there are indications significant illicit cultivation happens alongside the small plots of land approved for legal cultivation.)

This is why Hitchens’ plan to have the Afghans do it is such a bad idea. Right now, that is. Indeed, the problem in Afghanistan is not the opium, or even the Taliban, but that Afghans don’t have any other solutions. They are literally stuck, and our deliberate underfunding and under-support of the mission, combined with an appalling record of broken promises, has made those pressures worse for many years at this point. Only now that a presidential election is on the line is there significant movement toward increasing the security presence in the country and taking it seriously—a decision many years overdue, though the country may well just be salvageable.

As for the what-to-do-instead question, very little has changed since July of 2007, when I wrote of just this issue:

[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, 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.

I would still change very little of that, except to highlight that the recent release of the Army Field Manual FM 3-07 indicates the Army just might be shifting gears to accommodate this new reality. Which is nice to see, though how “real” this shift is remains to be seen.

But Christopher Hitchens does not come off as one with any particular knowledge or understanding of how or why opium remains such a problem. Instead of looking at why people grow poppies, Hitchens instead hints at his secret/special knowledge of secret/special government proceedings we peons can’t be trusted to hear about. Except from him. The truth is, far from being a political statement or a cry for help, growing poppy is usually just the best choice to families facing incredible challenges. Starting from there, and not from any rainbow-laced delusions of opium-free crop burnings, is the only way to really understand the dynamics at play so that they might 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 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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Positroll October 9, 2008 at 3:34 am

You put it as a question of choosing between either destroying OR buying for the foreseable future.
What’s wrong with my proposition here:
of buying poppies directly from the farmers in Helmand for 2 years at 5 times market price and destroying all opium crops after that?

As you said, growing poppies must become unattractive. If after those first 2 years you are a farmer with enough money to last your family for the next 5 years, knowing that growing poppies again might lead you to prison and your crops destroyed, wouldn’t it be an easy choice to instead go for wheat, roses or whatever else grows on your soil?

Even if this plan only eliminates 40% of the Talibans financing for the next 5 years, this would be a major blow to them. Add the weakening of all the drug gangs and war lords and it’s well worth the price …

Joshua Foust October 9, 2008 at 4:47 am

Woops! Sorry Positroll.

I don’t think that’s a bad idea — certainly more serious than what I discussed in the post. But I’m not convinced Afghanistan has the regulatory, and definitely not the economic, environment in which that plan could work.

Again, it comes down to incentives. First off, our own government agencies are limited in what kinds of alternative crops we can provide—USAID, for example, cannot help farmers grow cotton or wheat in place of opium because of rules enacted in the Farm Bill in the U.S. So after two years, unless the farmers can get their hands on re-capitalized crop seed, they’d be in trouble.

Secondly, there is the challenge of infrastructure. Heroin packs a ton of value into a very small amount of volume, and it doesn’t spoil easily. Other goods like fruits that could make a decent proportion of the income opium produces would simply spoil before they get to any market. Khost province faces that problem all the time, and it’s much closer to markets in Pakistan.

So, while I think that could possibly be a “final push” solution of sorts once other factors are in place, I don’t think it would work right now.

blowback October 9, 2008 at 6:57 am

Which is more important to Americans, defeating the Taliban or increasing the profits of agri-businesses in the US? On past experience (think banana growing in the Windward Isle), big business will win out every time. Maybe bankruptcy will change the US governments attitude.

Positroll October 9, 2008 at 9:06 am

“USAID, for example, cannot help farmers grow cotton or wheat”
Hmm. Well, let the US army pay for the opium. Let ISAF, Japan and the Arabs pay for other crops (easier said then done, I know; but a G8 meeting could agree on something like that when they need good publicity).

“Other goods like fruits that could make a decent proportion of the income opium produces would simply spoil before they get to any market.”

I think the best bet in this respect are roses http://www.asianews.it/view.php?l=en&art=1896
an saffron
for international sales in combination with wheat for local markets.

Joshua Foust October 9, 2008 at 9:15 am

Positroll, the issue isn’t buying opium. We have the money to do that (for now, at least). The issue is really how you would then fill the vacuum. I’ve spoken with multiple experts on Helmand — who have studied and been active in the province for decades — who are justifiably frustrated at the idiotic restrictions on what the government can and cannot do.

“Blowback” mentions something key — domestic politics badly distorts the mission there and elsewhere, leading to lopsided policy choices.

With roses, the spoiling issue is a concern. It takes a LONG time on the roads to get a commodity like that to market — meanwhile, a convoy of refrigerated trucks carrying valuable cargo will be vulnerable to ambush and seizure by bandits or insurgents.

With saffron, the challeng is different: price. It would be difficult to harvest saffron on the scale needed to make a dent into opium profits without crashing the global price — something India in particular and probably China (the two primary sources of Saffron) will vigorously oppose.

I’m still of the opinion that local influence, combined with improved security, will improve the situation, and that focusing only on opium and quick ways to plug the hole won’t work out in the long run.

Duncan Kinder October 9, 2008 at 9:56 am

What this all boils down to is that purchasing opium in Afghanistan would not work for so long as the so-called “War on Drugs” proceeds in general.

Which begs the question of why the War on Drugs, a twentieth century phenomenon, should persist into the 21st.

Positroll October 10, 2008 at 8:39 am

“With roses, the spoiling issue is a concern. It takes a LONG time on the roads to get a commodity like that to market”
Are you sure? The article I linked to talked about oil produced from the roses – not sending the roses to Europe etc. I seem to remember I read somethwere that you can produce the oil locally fairly easily – and rose oil doesn’t spoil easily, doesn’t need a lot of space either …

BTW, what about other crops that can be transformed into biofule? Considering the problems with transporting fuel through Pakistan, Afghanistan should be the perfect place to go green in this respect …

Joshua Foust October 10, 2008 at 9:32 am

Rose oil is a good bet, though I would wonder about the size of the market for it.

I think ethanol might be a great way to utilize even poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. But again, the double problems of regulation/enforcement and security rear their heads — they’d still get more money from smugglers, so without the ability to enforce appropriate growing standards it might end up being counterproductive.

Ian October 10, 2008 at 10:58 am

I agree with Josh that dealing with individual growers would be a regulation/enforcement nightmare. But I find it hard to believe that US/NATO intelligence hasn’t identified many of the mid-to-high level players in the opium system; if they haven’t yet, that should be first on their list. Let the market structures remain in place, but then let it be known that the mid- and high-level folks can either sell to Afghan/NATO market with impunity and a better markup, or try to smuggling through Iran/Central Asia/Pakistan and risk getting their skulls cracked. That way, farmers feel comfortable continuing with their crop and there’s no need to rewire the whole Afghan economy.

Basically, Season 3 of The Wire (which is the extent of my counternarcotics expertise). Afghanistan as Hampsterdam.

Not sure I’m seriously advocating this, but NATO does need to get creative a la Major Colvin.

dirk October 28, 2008 at 4:35 am

Positroll said…“USAID, for example, cannot help farmers grow cotton or wheat”…

That one comment says it all.So American Aid programs are not really about development its about creating and protecting American markets & goods.
No wonder the “selflessness “inspired reconstruction in Afghanistan is going no where.

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