Maybe a Rational CN Policy, At Last

by Joshua Foust on 3/22/2010 · 7 comments

Last week, I worried that the Marines in Helmand were going to get so obsessed with destroying the local opium crop that they’d wind up destroying any hope they have of securing victory. In at least one story, the Marines seemed determined to “stamp out” the opium trade in Marjeh, and were portrayed as reactive unsympathetically to farmers who complained they couldn’t make any money this year.

Now the New York Times hints that they just might have their heads on straight. Even though they write it off as “turning a blind eye,” this is actually a very good thing:

From Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal on down, the military’s position is clear: “U.S. forces no longer eradicate,” as one NATO official put it. Opium is the main livelihood of 60 to 70 percent of the farmers in Marja, which was seized from Taliban rebels in a major offensive last month. American Marines occupying the area are under orders to leave the farmers’ fields alone.

“Marja is a special case right now,” said Cmdr. Jeffrey Eggers, a member of the general’s Strategic Advisory Group, his top advisory body. “We don’t trample the livelihood of those we’re trying to win over.”

Yes, that is exactly right. Opium cultivation is a lagging indicator of other institutional problems—poor governance, zero economic security or prospects, and the presence of armed conflict. Ignoring opium to focus on the factors that drive instability will naturally reduce opium’s presence (to be clear, there is a time for eradication, but that comes long after suitable, and reasonable, alternatives are in place).

It’s strange, though, that the Times would react with such hostility to this development: in 2008, when the Marines first deployed to Helmand, they made a big show of not eradication opium so they could focus on more pressing concerns. But the officials they quote—from both NATO, McChrystal’s command, and the UN—are saying almost the opposite of what they said in 2008: opium does not cause instability, it results from instability.

While there remains a lot of assuming success—the UNODC, for example, credits much of Afghanistan’s reduced crop first to weather and a crashed price, then to good governance displacing it, and finally (and most minimally) to scattered eradication efforts—this new policy, of ignoring the opium for now, is the best thing that ISAF could do in Marjah. They should focus instead on developing an effective government in the area, building schools, and reconstruction for whatever they destroyed earlier this year. Those things will all reduce the opium crop, not emotionally bulldozing the fields.

Subscribe to receive updates from Registan

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

For information on reproducing this article, see our Terms of Use


reader March 22, 2010 at 12:47 pm

You are right, Joshua, to call for leaving the opium crop alone; destroying the crop would just play into the Taliban and drug-dealers’ hands, raising the price of their product. Why do you argue that opium production is an indicator of an unstable situation? Do you think that infrastructure might also play a part here? Is it easier to transport opium than other agricultural products? I don’t know, but it’s worth considering.
Ok, opium is a deadly product, but morality aside, Afghan farmers and the Taliban are just responding to market forces. They are also dealing with the salinization caused by the US’ last great development intervention in that area which makes it harder to raise most crops.

The statements by the officials, Jean-Luc Lemahieu and Zulmai Afzali, basically translate as the control freaks in DC, Europe, and Kabul can’t stand that their rules can’t be imposed worldwide, and that they also have a hard time getting their piece of the action openly and still mollify their more authoritarian-minded subjects. Goes back to the paradox of authoritarians who use capitalist and free market rhetoric. Lemahieu’s statement that nothing can compete with opium in a secure environment makes one wonder if the man has ever considered the role of greed in the economy. Yes the Taliban have their hands in the cookie jar and are taking their cut, so this isn’t exactly free market. But why break your back raising wheat every year on salty soil, competing on the world market when you can grow poppies and in a good year make bank?

DePetris March 22, 2010 at 1:01 pm

Eradicating the opium fields in Marjah would be a complete and utter disaster, and it’s a bit refreshing that General Stanley McChrystal understands this.

Before McChrystal’s reign at the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, the United States interpreted the Afghan drug problem largely through the lens of…well…an American. The U.S. Military was intent on destroying opium fields in the hopes that demand for illicit narcotics would dramatically decrease on the world market. Obviously, curbing opium production was also viewed by the American command as a way to stabilize Afghan culture and disrupt the flow of money to the Taliban insurgency.

But this policy, as Josh points out, only increased the tension that many Afghan farmers felt towards the coalition. And given the fact that “winning hearts and minds” is a key part of America’s current strategy, opium eradication would severely complicate those efforts. It’s a great thing that McChrystal has recognized this.

The reason Afghans pursue drug cultivation is simple; they have no other economic alternative.

DE Teodoru March 22, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Bravo Mr. Foust for grasping that concept of opium growing for what it is. But then, I’m afraid you failed to go further– SO THEN……

That is a tactical issue on a local scale but on a global scale let us recall that the opium we find kids in Zurich’s “Needle Park” using comes for USA OCCUPIED AFGHANISTAN!” Consider the strategic global implications of that! I recall the propaganda when the links were made by Soviet Propaganda about Golden Triangle heroine and CIA….and then about Contras and CIA cocaine. The latter reinforced the former and few of my generation do not believe that US intel is into drugs.

I am not suggesting we should eradicate poppy and face the blowback but I do think that if we offer no alternative– AND NEVER IN ITS HISTORY HAS US OFFERED A *RURAL* ALTERNATIVE, then we should get out before we, instead of Arab hypocrites, are blamed for Muslim World drugs dealing. Do you agree or disagree? I would greatly appreciate your perspective because we both know that our inability to eradicate Afghan heroine is SYMPTOMATIC of the feebleness of our expeditionary position, thus not an option we can debate. In sum it’s like a paraplegic debating whether he should be given a number to enter Boston Marathon. We can do nothing in Afghanistan other than be part of what’s there or get out. Meanwhile, the Taliban are seen as offering a spiritual revolution. A decade later and we couldn’t even come up with a material one.

RScott March 24, 2010 at 1:22 am

There were a couple of other factors involved in the reduction of opium poppy cultivation last year. The over supply of opium, yes. But wheat prices in Afghanistan have exploded over the past 5 years or so resulting from the drought in the north that depends on rain for wheat and reduced wheat production in places like Helmand that planted more poppy. Even with the WFP importing wheat for their programs rather than turning to the traditional wheat producing areas like Helmand, and smuggled wheat from Pakistan, the price of wheat has risen and caught the attention of what are basically wheat farmers that watch the markets closely. But another factor is the farmers’ perception of what the new foreign military occupational forces will do about opium poppy cultivation. Uncertainty is not something farmers like to consider. An example from the past: the foothill regions of Helmand including Sanguine, Musa Kala, Nawzad etc. had produced lots of opium under the King but in the fall of 73, after Daoud replaced the King, opium cultivation was reduced to virtually nothing in these areas because of the uncertainty of what the Daoud government would do. He was noted to be a hard liner from his time in the 50s I think, as prime minister. But when his government did virtually noting about poppy, poppy cultivation returned the following years to those areas.

And we should keep one thing in mind: a foreign military, non-Muslim, if not anti-Muslim occupational force that supports an unpopular and corrupt local and central government, after killing by “accident” and on purpose friends and relatives of the rural Pashtun farmers of Helmand and Kandahar will not likely “win the hearts and minds” of these people. They dont forget. There is a Pashtu proverb that goes approximately: If you take vengeance in this generation, you are over anxious.

DE Teodoru March 23, 2010 at 7:14 pm

Geeeeeee….The Biddle rationale for more, more, more
is suffering geographic translocation:

Gentlement, pleeeeaaaasssseeem, will you be so kind to give me a Taliban ORDER of Battle so I can justify in my mind all the units and equipment we are sending to Afghanistan as a flip of the COIN.

Tim March 24, 2010 at 6:35 am

Perhaps no rational CN policy just yet…

Josh, many thanks for highlighting this (and for your excellent blog overall). But I worry that it is perhaps premature to declare a local, tactical decision on behalf of some US troops to be the “rational CN policy” much needed for the country. And my worries go a bit deeper than this. Not wiping out a local poppy crop is of course a basic “hearts and minds” step that stops you being shot at or IEDed, but I’m not sure it represents the culmination of the 9 year long (and counting) quest for coherent policy. We still seem to be in either a state of “a conflict of policies” or “no policy at all”. Eggers is quoted in the piece as saying Marjah is a special case right now, so maybe other approaches are being tested at the same time (see below). The piece also noted that half the Afghan government appeared to be champing at the bit to destroy the crops. Who is responsible for making the policy decision on CN – Afghan government? international community? UNODC? Or US Marines? And at the much needed strategic level of policy-making, maybe you remember that, last year, the UNODC appeared to advocate sealing off the borders of Afghanistan (simple, right??) and letting the Afghans grow as much poppy as they wanted in order to create a price crash when they find they can’t export…!!?? ( The words “barking” and “mad” spring to mind, but it also highlights for me the absence of anything approaching a coherent, practical policy for CN. We are flip-flopping around each new year (or should I say, planting season) We should also compare the article you highlight with a similar article that came out 24 hours later from Reuters “Marines offer cash in fight against Afghan opium” I quote:

“The new strategy, the Marines wanted to inform Hanif, involves paying farmers the value of their next harvest in return for them destroying their poppies themselves and growing legal alternatives using seeds provided by the Afghan government.”

This could only work with a very effective monitoring/enforcement scheme in place – when tried previously, Afghans were planting poppy left, right and centre that they had no intention of harvesting, in order to get compensation. This not only seems to be a different policy to the “turning a blind eye” approach, but it concerns me greatly that we seemed to have slipped back 7 years – all these policies (if you can in fact describe these short term solutions as “policies”) are just rehashed versions of failed old ones. The Brits had the lead on CN in the early post-2001 period – everything was tried – buying up the crops, paying compensation for eradication, paying them for not planting, forced eradication. None of these seemed to work or perhaps maybe none of them were properly applied, measured and coordinated and enforced with the right resources over the long term.

Aren’t we in danger of merely going full speed back to the past because lessons are never learned and international personnel are in and out of Afghanistan before they know it…?



Grant March 24, 2010 at 7:31 pm

I have to disagree in part with the last statement. I agree that opium primarily stems from the instability and lack of good governance, but I feel that it does contribute to the instability as well. It does so by funding various militant groups, encouraging corruption, and creating problems beyond the immediate region. With that said, I am in agreement on how to handle this. As long as the insurgency continues there is little logic in counter-narcotics programs. Difficult as it may be, the U.S should instead focus on assisting the Afghan government in gaining control of the nation until circumstances change.

Previous post:

Next post: