The U.S. Air Force just declared a major victory in the war on drugs in Afghanistan because it bombed a big pile of bagel toppings.
The U.S. military bombed about 300 tons of poppy seeds in a dusty field in southern Afghanistan Tuesday in a dramatic show of force designed to break up the Taliban’s connection to heroin…
The military dropped a series of 1,000-pound bombs from planes on the mounds of poppy seeds and then followed with strikes from helicopters.
Tony Wayne, with the U.S. State Department, said the strikes on poppy seeds, that can be used to make opium and heroin, is part of a strategy shift for the military to stop the Taliban and other insurgents from profiting from drugs.
Well, that’s certainly true in a very indirect sense. But the seeds themselves are non-narcotic, and their only real danger is when they’re planted and sprout to form opium-producing poppies. Poppy seeds on their own are really just bagel topping.
In reality, you harvest opium by raking a small claw-like device over the poppy bulb, letting it “bleed” a bit, and then scraping up the paste that oozes out. They’re overselling the significance of this a BIT much, especially when it apparently took thousands of pounds of explosives and thousands of dollars of flight time to blow up a few piles of garnish. Luckily, the efforts to stamp out opium are not limited to attacking bagels:
The Obama administration is considering whether to pay off Afghan farmers to stop them from growing heroin poppies on contract for the Taliban, senior officials said Tuesday.
Paying farmers not to plant poppy would essentially supplant U.S. cash for the fees paid up front by the Taliban to its contract farmers. The idea seems to follow logically from the administration’s policy of protecting Afghan civilians and eroding support for the insurgency, but skeptics say it won’t work because farmers would take the money and plant poppies anyway.
Those stupid skeptics, what with their experience and first-hand experience. Still, the British tried this in 2007 to… absolutely no success at all. There are other considerations, too: many poppy farmers, especially in the south, are locked into rather severe debt cycles from planting. It is here we must look to some fairly recent history, in the 1980s.
Mujahidin Commander Nassim Akhundzada is probably the man most responsible for the concentration of poppy in the Helmand River Valley. In the 1980s, he intimidated farmers into planting so much opium he became known as “the King of Heroin.” What’s more, he set quotas for the farmers, so if they didn’t plant at least 50% of their land with opium to fund the jihad, they had to pay him the difference or face rather severe personal consequences. (Steve Coll, of Ghost Wars fame, wrote a story about this for the Washington Post in 1990, in the context of the U.S. declining to investigate Afghanistan’s opium trade.)
Akhundzada also innovated another system, called salaam. Structurally, salaam is like a share cropping arrangement, or maybe a feudal land tenant relationship that is denominated in opium, and not any form of currency. While it looks very much like an opium-based micro-credit system (which it is), salaam also has grievous penalties for non-payment and sky-high interest rates in the form of price fluctuations (the drug lords cleverly avoid an explicitly unIslamic interest, but basing a loan on a volatile commodity does the same thing). The effect is farmers trapped in a nearly impossible debt cycle. So, when the market price of opium spikes during a growing season, farmers who do not have stores of opium or other valuable assets that they could sell for cash have no choice but to repay their debt in opium the following season.*
It plays out tragically. Once a farmer has opium debt, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to pay back that debt in a single growing season. As farmers have fallen deeper and deeper into debt in the last seven years of the counternarcotics campaigns (and sometimes even weather), many of them have taken more and more desperate measures to avoid defaulting on their salaam loans. Many have fled to Pakistan, while others sold their children into marriage to opium traffickers or their families. There are also reports that farmers “roll” credit over on the condition that they produce even more opium the next season. The penalty for outright default is reported to be slow, torturous execution.
So when we sit down and think about paying farmers not to plant opium, it’s important to remember that there is a lot more context to the transaction beyond the immediate issue of crop value that year. Opium-producing areas of the country tend to be wealthier overall than non-opium producing areas. When opium is literally the only source of credit in an area, offering temporary cash subsidies doesn’t really get at one of the economic drivers of opium cultivation.
If, instead of a shallow (and already-failed) attempt to pay off farmers not to plant or harvest opium, the State Department instead decided to spearhead the development of a rural farm-focused microcredit bank, then we could begin talking about permanent ways of weaning Helmand off its poppy. But, especially given the surge of DEA agents into Afghanistan, is it even worth looking at a non-militaristic solution to the opium problem? The U.S. government has its eyes set on a deeply failed policy of coercion, when we know that other methods stand at the very least an equal chance of success without all the baggage of failure. But that won’t change things—if the current surge in Helmand continues to focus so much on opium, expect an extremely bloody summer.
* An excellent source on the local economics of opium cultivation in Afghanistan can be found in Wanda Felbab-Brown, “Kicking the Opium Habit? Afghanistan’s Drug Economy and Politics Since the 1980s,” Conflict, Security & Development, 6:2, 129.