Flogging a Dead Opium Horse

by Joshua Foust on 8/13/2009 · 4 comments

Post image for Flogging a Dead Opium Horse

Gretchen Peters and I obviously disagree quite strongly on the strength of the relationship between opium cultivation and insurgency funding. That doesn’t mean this study she produced for the U.S. Institute of Peace isn’t worth reading, however:

In Afghanistan’s poppy-rich south and southwest, known links exist between Taliban insurgents and the drug traffickers who operate along the Pakistan border. The fact that the Taliban profit from opium is routinely mentioned in media reports, academic studies, and comments by U.S. government officials, yet there is little concrete detail available to the public and policymakers on how the insurgents interact with drug traders and profit from opium. To the extent that NATO forces, civilian officials, and aid organizations operating in the south and southwest lack data on the issue or have failed to analyze it, they function in a relative vacuum. With thousands more U.S. troops deploying to Afghanistan, joined by hundreds of civilian partners as part of Washington’s reshaped strategy toward the region, understanding how the Taliban profit from the opium trade could help build strategies to weaken the insurgents and to extend governance.

So far so good. The report is a lot of rehashing the material in her book, primarily the “survey” she kept mentioning. They interviewed three hundred people, though given the severe constraints on collection, I’d question whether it could be called a survey (i.e. it’s clearly not randomized, and given the literacy, or illiteracy, of the respondents, it’s unclear if they could answer the questions appropriately), but it still has some important things to say… and not say.

The problem is with the corner Ms. Peters has painted herself into. In the exchange we had after I panned her book, she admitted that other factors, such as government corruption, could play a potentially larger role in cultivating opium and in fueling the insurgency than mere drug smuggling, but her book was about the Taliban and al Qaeda, so that’s what she restricted her research to. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it’s a tacit admission that she’s deliberately covering only the convenient good-versus-evil side of the phenomenon, and not the morally complex political economy of the entire Afghan drug trade.

So we’re stuck with what could only be called an incomplete picture. And it is here where Ms. Peters needs to construct an air-tight case for why we should be concerned with opium as the primary driver of militancy in the country—something she just doesn’t do. For example, in this report, Ms. Peters repeats the UNODC’s estimate that the Taliban receive around half a billion each year from the opium trade—about seven times more money than the Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA just estimated they actually receive.

That being said, the DIA and CIA agree than the relatively paltry $70 million the insurgency does receive is sufficient to fund a lot of militancy. But here is where the other side of the “financial intelligence” coin comes into play: that’s probably less than half their operating budget if you factor in Gulf Region donations and grafting the reconstruction effort.

Which brings us back to the original disagreement I have with Ms. Peters: focusing on opium as the root of all evil only gets you, at the very most, a tiny sliver of the problem. And it certainly doesn’t assist with a solution, considering the role opium plays in driving the rural economy. So while we can hem and haw about how opium profits go right into the hands of Mullah Omar, if we ignore that those profits also go into the hands of Akhundzada, the Karzai family, Sherzai, and many others, then we’re deliberately blinding ourselves to the real magnitude of the problem.

Photo comes from this atrocity, of course.

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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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Fnord August 13, 2009 at 10:39 pm

Hmm, I dont make your numbers add up. 70 million equals 50% income. Are you saying that the resistance runs on a 140 million budget?

ken August 14, 2009 at 2:16 am

Will the “Opium Horse” ever be a ‘dead horse,’ historically, in the future?

Samz August 14, 2009 at 2:59 am

An equally important pernicious effect of the narcotics trade and associated criminality is how it subverts the rest of the country, not just the Taleban-infested bits. As has been argued elsewhere on this blog, the failure of the Afghan government and its international allies (read the US) to provide good governance and rule of law to ordinary Afghans has made the COIN work much more difficult. Over the past eight years, I witnessed how the Taleban and other anti-government groups effectively used this failure to justify their actions.

Kate Clark of the BBC just did a pretty nice long piece on one aspect of this problem, President Karzai’s increasingly politicized pardons (caveat: I’m quoted in it, but I think it’s good nonetheless): http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/specialreports/assignment_archive.shtml.

Joshua Foust August 14, 2009 at 6:26 am

Fnord, I believe the phrase was “less than half.” We don’t know for certain.

Ken, probably not, because drugs are bad, mkay?

Samz, I’m with you. I’d suggest clicking on this link instead of the archive link he posted.


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