The “Flood” of Drugs

by Joshua Foust on 5/26/2009 · 2 comments

UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa has quite the idea:

After the failure to destroy fields of the scarlet flowers in Afghanistan’s volatile south, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the answer is to stop the drugs from leaving the country in the first place.

“Manual eradication is incompetent and inefficient,” UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa said during a visit to the western Afghan province of Herat. “So we want to see more efforts to stop the flow of drugs across Afghanistan’s borders and the hitting of high-value targets to create a market disruption.

“We want to create a flood of drugs within Afghanistan. There will be so much opium inside Afghanistan unable to go out that the price will go down.”

Just like that. He might as well be talking about the other kind of flood, for all the good shutting down Afghanistan’s primary export and income generation activity would do for the country. Costa said something else totally pea-brained:

However, wheat has fallen by 30% since October and humanitarian handouts of imported wheat last winter also helped to keep prices in Afghanistan low.

Costa said his request that the World Food Programme buy only Afghan wheat had been rejected by “free market ayatollahs who think political stability is less important than free market principles”.

Damn those humanitarian handouts, preventing our counternarcotics! This is a strong example of the classic double-whammy of thinking only in the extreme short term and expecting to succeed using only models we know. Indeed, the free market is one of the ultimate solutions to Afghanistan. The challenge they face is, the only free market operating there right now is the opium market, since it’s the only one viable on a large-scale.

Then there is this to think about: the UN official in charge of controlling or eliminating drug trafficking in Afghanistan thinks it is okay to advocate crashing its economy in pursuit of a single, narrow goal, as if crashing the price of opium in one year could ever be done in a vacuum without severe economic, political, and security consequences for the area. Afghanistan’s GDP is 60% opium—how will suddenly crashing its price be anything other than disaster? And the biggest of windfalls for the Taliban?

Previous (and recent) posts on Afghanistan’s opium economy:
Revising Opium Downward… Maybe
A Pragmatic Extrapolation from Limited Data
Letting Poppy Kill the Counterinsurgency


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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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{ 2 comments }

RScott May 27, 2009 at 11:55 am

The farmers of central Helmand where some 60% of the country’s opium is produced in the largest modern irrigation system in the country mostly built with US funding between 1946-79, have been asking for help with the markets and credit for their traditional cash crops (which they still cultivate) as a prerequisite for stop cultivating opium poppy. These are smart, double-cropping, cash cropping farmers who see opium as an evil crop but with a reliable market, with reasonable profits and an informal credit system, something the international community of doners have been unable to marginally compete with (through mis-direction and bungling) in some 8 years of occupation. The World Food Program continues to import wheat from the subsidized farmers of the developed world while the farmers of central Helmand also continue to produce a surplus of wheat (and could produce more with incentives) as they always have even during drought years in other parts of the country. To some great extent, the present security and narcotics situation in the country is a product of foreign mis-direction in the failed reconstruction effort.

Joel Hafvenstein May 28, 2009 at 12:29 am

Somehow Mr. Costa consistently manages to make me disagree with him even when we should be in agreement. Take the wheat thing as an example. I agree that Western dumping of subsidized wheat (rather than buying more from local farmers) is unnecessarily hurting the agricultural economy, and that the WFP should be more critical in its criteria for declaring a massive wheat distribution. Saying so isn’t an attack on “humanitarian handouts” — plenty of humanitarian actors are trying to support local wheat production capacity as a sustainable response to Afghanistan’s chronic staple crop problems.

But… how on earth is this kind of dumping by enormous aid bureaucracies an example of market fundamentalism? It’s the opposite of a free market.

Who knows — maybe Costa went on to make this point or somehow clarify what he meant in his next, unquoted sentence. But on its face, this kind of hostile misunderstanding of market forces is alarming, coming from a man whose job includes thinking up alternatives to opium poppy.

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