How Do You Do the “Build” in a Crashed Economy?

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by Joshua Foust on 7/24/2009 · 7 comments

Garmsir, Helmand is generally known as one of the “opium bazaars” of the south. It’s an area where one could wander the bazaars and find opium paste and processing chemicals for sale in the open. In 2008, the Marine operation in Garmsir—one of the many offensives to “re-take” Garmsir, was called Azada Wosa, or “Be Free” in Pashto—was devastating. After fighting (and the threat of fighting) had emptied most of the villages and communities along the Helmand River, the Marines and the Brits stationed a so-called “Stabilization Advisor” to the district, who was supposed to “work with the local government, military and support agencies to assist and coordinate reconstruction and development efforts as it applies to governance, law, security, and the economy.”

Of course, that didn’t really happen, since the Marines are, once again, staging an assault on Garmsir. Shop owners in the area complained that they got “no help to rebuild.” Huge swaths of Garmsir were empitied during and just before the fighting.

Brig-Gen Branco told IWPR that reports in the Afghan media that large numbers of people had been displaced by the fighting were “highly exaggerated”.

“Our figures show 4,000 displaced persons, most of them from before the operation started,” he said.

This assessment does not tally with statements from local officials and residents, however.

According to Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, the fighting has displaced 8,000 families, and there is a significant aid shortfall.

Before that, Garmsir was a major economic hub of the area. Hopefully, this time around, when the Marines say they’ll do something to help rebuild the town somewhat, they actually mean it. Only, they’re focusing on the opium trade as well.

In January of this year, Texas Monthly gave us this glimpse of Garmsir under Marine control in mid-2008:

After crossing the Helmand and an Afghan National Army checkpoint, we pushed through Garmsir’s largest bazaar, a dirt road lined with more mud buildings, these like tan shoe boxes with beat-up metal rolling doors. Some doors were closed, and some were missing, showing nothing but bare rooms. There weren’t even any people inside making use of the shade. Unlike the streets of a place like Ramadi, there were few signs of destruction. Just emptiness.

The town had changed by the time I drove through with Mustang a week later. A shura had been convened in early June, the first meeting of area leaders in nearly three years, and Garmsir had been declared sufficiently secure to invite locals home. But the bazaar hadn’t exactly sprung back to life. There was little sign of commerce, just men lingering at storefronts in groups of five and ten, sitting or squatting next to dusty motorcycles, watching as the patrol crawled by…

There was palpable relief as we pushed into open desert, where there were fewer signs of life. Isolated homes and thatched huts, a family on their knees scraping the ground in a small salt flat. We passed a cemetery on a hill above the town, a spot where Mustang had spent a few nights in April.

In other words, at this time last year, the Marines had relatively free reign of the area, at least enough so they could tote around a journalist to talk about the emptiness. And this is the point: the Marines didn’t fill the emptiness with anything. It just sat there, empty.

Small wonder they had to force their way into the area again.

Here’s the problem: we know opium forms the foundation for most of the economy in Helmand. Even though the Marines are (smartly) avoiding punishing the farmers for growing it, if they destroy the entire opium economy in Helmand, even at a higher level, but don’t provide any alternative means to pay back loans or buy food, then next year they’ll be right back in the same place they were this year, and the year before that, and the year before that. Only this time, they’ll have even less credibility, since already they’ve built a reputation for moving in, killing bad guys, and making empty promises before doing it again. If they are going to wipe out opium as an economic engine for the area, they must immediately replace it with something at least almost as sustainable—because otherwise, they are creating the conditions for increased militancy.

The thing is, they haven’t done that before. So now my big question is: what’s different? What indication is there that this new “offensive” to do proper counterinsurgency will, in fact, do counterinsurgency, and not just be another case where the military says it’ll do one but actually doesn’t? Because I’m struggling to find it.

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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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Reko Ravela July 25, 2009 at 5:32 am

If you take away moral anti-drug angle, whole thing seems awfully lot like scorched earth strategy: destroy local economy, so it can’t support insurgents. Well, that surely worked for Soviets…

Bender July 25, 2009 at 9:19 am

Reading several articles about this subject. Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more acceptable to the locals to just buy the stuff from the locals and then burn it (or use it for medical or other acceptable uses). Allow the growers to pay off their debts and break the cycle of their dependency by assisting them with the next crop, maybe with an incentive, if it is not Poppy. There don’t seem to be too many alternatives for the farmers to grow there, without major agricultural improvements. So destroying the Poppy crop is primarily punishing the farmers, not so much the dealer/Taliban. That is not going to win any hearts in the general population. I can just about feel what it would mean to me having to give my 16 year old daughter as payment to the “banker” that fronted me the money for the seed for the crop that just got wiped out.

T. Greer July 25, 2009 at 12:16 pm


Let me ask you a question. In areas where poppy production is the norm, are there any other feasible crop alternatives to the opium trade? It is fine to say that the Marines should be “filling the emptiness”, but with what?

Joshua Foust July 25, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Greer: wrong question. There shouldn’t BE an emptiness to fill. The Marines are putting the cart before the horse by focusing on opium instead of the many many many reasons why people grow it.

AJK July 25, 2009 at 5:11 pm

re: Bender. I’ve actually heard that argument before, but I have yet to here it refuted very well. The only issue I can really see with it is similar to the issue of paying farmers to not grow anything: If you promise to buy the crops, the folks who sold them the seeds are not going to be happy…how to you make sure that you buy ALL of the crop (so that the US doesn’t, you know, end up funding terrorist activities).

I don’t think that the example I just gave is a good one though. I can’t think of a good reason why not to buy&burn.

And yes, this is exactly scorched-earth, but if you agree with Donald Snow and thing COIN can’t work logistically in Afghanistan, the only other military option being considered is scorched-earth.

Bender July 25, 2009 at 6:39 pm

re: AJK, got your point. In principle I am against stupidities like paying a farmer not to grow xyz. I think though the reason we are doing it here in the US is a different one than suggested in AF. The way I understand the mechanism is that alledgedly the Afghanis are growing the Poppy as part of the jihad (to supply unbelievers with the drug). It is not for personal use and prohibited in Islam, the exception is to grow it as a “weapon”. I also understand that the Taliban levy a tax on the product to finance their operations. In my opinion we want to primarily target the Taliban funding. The scorched earth approach will do that but in the same swipe will turn the Poppy farmer into a new Taliban fighter. He does not have any other choice. I think the approach needs to be a temporary involvement from us to take over the market aspect of the business, make sure the farmer has his current production sold, his finances leveled out. Then offer him an alternative for next year and the years after. Make sure he is not harassed and secure the market for his next crop, especially if it is not Poppy. If the Taliban want to get their tax, they can pick it up at the next Marine outpost in lead.
Now I understand that this is a pretty radical approach and am not sure what other entities are holding their hands out when we buy the stuff and burn it. I am thinking there is transportation, refining and who knows what else before it hits the market in Amsterdam. All these people are going to feel the pinch and will have a word to say to this. Maybe even the regular government(s) that levy taxes on the sale (e.g. like the cigarette tax). I am trusting that our own folks have the backbone to actually destroy the stuff and not to fly it courtesy American taxpayer home and then sell it for a nice profit. That might be the only real argument for burning it in the field.

BruceR July 27, 2009 at 11:19 am

It’s a conundrum. In practice, the whole legalization/compensation thing re opium tends to run up across the simple truism that you can’t hope to decrease supply by measures that increase demand. The rational response of farmers to any kind of friendly crop appropriation such as Bender outlines will be, on a nation-wide basis, to grow enough for both legal AND illegal buyers.

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