Revising Opium Downward… Maybe

by Joshua Foust on 5/9/2009

In 2007, the UNODC—the UN agency responsible for monitoring drug activity and organized crime—estimated the black opium industry in Afghanistan generated about $4 billion, which was a 26% increase over 2006. In 2008, that probably dropped during the 20% reduction in overall cultivation, but the fact remains it is an enormous sum of money. It is partly what makes the claim that the Taliban are “driving” opium cultivation so very silly—as Dexter Filkins reported last week, officials believe the Taliban make about $300 million from the opium trade.

Or do they? The UNODC has never been comfortable drawing a direct causation between opium and the Taliban—they are correlated, to be sure, but neither specifically causes the other. They both just happen to occur in similar environments. And from Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s reporting, it seems clear that not only was Bush obsessed with opium eradication (“I’m a spray man, myself,” he is reputed to have told his advisers), the Obama administration seems determined to chart a new course.

Katie Couric, who recently spent a few days in Afghanistan being flown with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, made note of Afghanistan’s Poppy Fields.

Today I rode in a black hawk helicopter over the poppy fields in southern Afghanistan with Brigadier General John Nicholson, Secretary Robert Gates and a few other folks…

The poppy crop is being harvested right now and made into opium which will later be refined into heroin. In fact, two thirds of the world’s heroin supply comes from southern Afghanistan. Opium production accounts for 60 percent of this country’s economy and it fuels the engine for the insurgency, with the Taliban making $70 to $100 million dollars a year.

Filkins’ source for the $300 claim isn’t clear from his piece, but it is a number many U.S. military officials have cited, repeatedly. It seems leadership higher up the chain is telling reporters a rather different story when it comes to the Taliban’s opium income. Which means (once again) that it is probably a bad idea to allow a crop whose economic behavior we barely understand to dictate the war strategy.

Parting thoughts: Don’t miss, too, when Couric discovers the fobbit. It’s precious. Also, how much can you learn on a five day trip to Riyadh, Islamabad, Kabul, Kandahar, and Turkey? That’s kind of the buried subtext of Couric’s report. I don’t know the answer, I was just struck by the idea of a quick workweek-length jaunt around the Middle East and South Asia.

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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 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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