Some More Thoughts on Opium

by Joshua Foust on 10/12/2008 · 1 comment

Joel Hafvenstein, the author of Opium Season, sent me an email with some additional thoughts on the prospects of opium in Helmand. He happens to know a lot about the topic, as he spent many months trying to run a USAID alternative livelihood program there before being evacuated after several members of his staff were brutally murdered in 2005.

I agree that no one knows what share of Taliban funding stems from opium; I would be surprised if it funded a majority. The military has on occasion asserted a number like the 40% you cite, but I have yet to see any convincing analysis (or even detailed guesswork) backing the numbers up. The Taliban are able to claim “taxes” and other extortionary fees on a wide range of economic activity, legal and illegal, across the Pashtun belt. They still reportedly get willing support from the prosperous Pakistani “trucker mafia”, a major funder of their initial conquests in the ‘90s. There’s no knowing what friendly elements in the ISI are channelling to them, or what money comes in through al-Qaeda connections.


Meanwhile, as you point out, the opium trade is organically connected to government officials at every level, who can be expected to resist any serious attempts to reduce their profits. The anti-Taliban governors and police chiefs in the north and east who have cracked down on poppy cultivation continue to profit handsomely from trafficking routes. Or take Sher Muhammad of Helmand, from the Costa quote you cited, who is related by marriage to the Karzais and was demoted from governor to senator at British insistence after 9 tons of opium were discovered in his office. Since his ouster, he has allegedly been encouraging the skyrocketing levels of poppy cultivation and violence in the province, to strengthen the case that only his family can control the place. Karzai has reportedly been arguing with the British to reinstate him over the last few months.

In short, a major campaign against opium is thus unlikely to cripple the Taliban, and is likely to inspire underhand resistance from powerful elements in the Afghan government. If the US did spray the fields, there’s every possibility that it would hurt the Taliban’s enemies in the government more than the Taliban themselves. So what to do about poppy? Nothing hurried, nothing that presumes that the war will be won or lost on opium money. And policy-makers should take a bit of a longer perspective on the market forces at work. For the last couple years, UNODC has calculated that Afghanistan is producing more opium than the total world demand for illegal opiates. Driven by this oversupply, opium’s raw economic advantage is shrinking as the price descends from the heights it hit after the 2000 Taliban ban, back toward its 1990s average. It should be no surprise that this year has seen a drop in cultivation in most areas of the country, as the regions with a comparative advantage become clear.

The price of poppy has fallen fastest in the north (where the poppy has a lower morphine content), and in Badakhshan, farmers can already make more from okra or onions than opium — though to be fair, vegetables sell at a premium up there, which may diminish as the USAID highway-paving projects reach ever further into the mountains. (A consequence not widely recognized by those who trumpet roads as a COIN/development panacea!)

Still, the other “institutional” advantages of opium — e.g. access to contract farming arrangements and credit from traffickers — remain, and the key aim of alternative livelihoods programs should be to provide the same services and risk reduction measures for legal crops that the traffickers do for opium. “Legal opium” as advocated by Hitchens and others would not automatically have these advantages — and if the Afghan government could provide them for poppy, it could provide them for other crops.

Notice the bit about the roads. His overall point largely coincides with my own—which could be summarized as “policy makers still don’t seem to be thinking through the real consequences of their decisions.” Let’s hope that can change sometime soon.


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– 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 }

komik October 12, 2008 at 2:09 pm

Still, the other “institutional” advantages of opium — e.g. access to contract farming arrangements and credit from traffickers — remain, and the key aim of alternative livelihoods programs should be to provide the same services and risk reduction measures for legal crops that the traffickers do for opium. “Legal opium” as advocated by Hitchens and others would not automatically have these advantages — and if the Afghan government could provide them for poppy, it could provide them for other crops.thanks good

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