A Pragmatic Extrapolation from Limited Data

by Joshua Foust on 5/9/2009

From the ever-so-useful Barnett Rubin Listserv comes information from CSTC-A about opium eradication in Nangarhar province. What’s that? Nangarhar is “poppy free” and a model for the rest of the country? Seriously?

Both terms deserve clarification. When the UNODC declares a province poppy-free, what they mean is, production there is negligable. Whether that is in the context of total production, other provinces, or some sort of absolute number (whether a percentage of arable land or total worldwide opium production) varies, depending on the agency. But what I find interesting here is not the fact there are some fairly small-ish opium farms in southwestern Nangarhar (near Tora Bora)—most opium farms are small family affairs. What interests me is the density of the farms. In a single five kilometer stretch of the countryside, teams found and destroyed 100 poppy fields… right during harvest time, which is the worst possible time to eradicate the crop since the farmers have most likely already gone into debt to acquire seeds and now have no way to pay that off or have credit for growing things next year.

In other words, not only is there the distinct possibility that there is a far greater density of opium cultivation in Gul Agha Sherzai’s perfect province than officials might have us believe, but the opium policy still seems to be designed in such a way as to inflict the greatest amount of harm on local farmers… who we should be trying to win over to our side. Vanda Felbab-Brown—a Brookings scholar who has focused relentless on the problems of counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan—explained the danger of this approach three years ago:

The most pernicious side effect of the efforts in Nangarhar and Helmand is the inability of peasants to repay their accumulated opium debt. Creditors who lend money to peasants to make it through the winter months and buy seeds for the following season – the only microcredit system available – double or triple the peasants’ debts if they are not repaid in the same year. The peasants then have to grow even more poppy than they would have otherwise. If peasants take too long to repay, they face the possibility of being killed by the traffickers and having their houses seized. They are left with two options: Give away their daughters (girls as young as 3) as brides to the creditors or abscond to Pakistan.

Since 2006, that problem has only gotten worse. While Sherzad itself has a relatively high income (see page 3, pdf), Nangarhar as a whole has only become more violent in the years since Ms. Felbab-Brown wrote that op-ed. What we do know is the extremely erratic behavior of Nangarhar’s opium sector has contributed to economic instability in the province overall, and severe income swings (page 32, pdf). From the data on hand, it is likely that higher incomes—such as Sherzad District, where the Coalition just conducted a noteworthy eradication effort—correspond with opium production. According to the IMF, when Nangarhar province saw a huge drop in opium cultivation under Gul Agha Sherzai’s early tenure in 2005/6, province-wide GDP was about $1.3 billion (which was a big drop from the year before, when there was much more opium). The next year, 2006/7, when opium production spiked 285%, province-level GDP rose to $3.2 billion, only to fall the next year to $1.8 billion as the UNODC declared it poppy-free.

Now, none of this proves any sort of causation, and much of the analysis about current trends is based off that single data point at the start of this post. However, these are the limitations we must work with—there simply are not good, rigorous data sets about the opium market in Nangarhar. The tiny glimpses of it that we have, however, indicate that not only is Nangarhar not at all the model province some U.S. officials seem to want it to be, but that its governor, Gul Agha Sherzai, is far less effective and capable than people have given him credit for.

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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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