The news of that suicide bomb in Lashkar Gah is horrific.
At least 13 Afghans were killed on Wednesday morning when a bomb exploded at a market in an attack aimed at a NATO-backed program to reduce opium cultivation in the restive southern province of Helmand, local authorities said.
Most of the victims were farmers and other Afghans lined up to receive fertilizer and seeds from the NATO-backed Food Zone program, which is designed to persuade farmers to switch from poppy cultivation, the most profitable crop in Helmand, to wheat and other crops.
Unfortunately, it is not surprising, either: when you go after the most profitable crop in the area, you’re bound to rile up some wounded feelings (and pocketbooks). The reasoning behind this is simple: without a fairly graduate weening process in place, any major counter-narcotics program is bound to inspire a violent paroxysm from the people who stand to lose from just such an arrangement.
And seriously, we’ve talked this phenomenon to death in this space, so I won’t flog that horse anymore. But since the government seems determined to push ahead with counternarcotics policies probably years before they have any real chance of achieving a meaningful result, let’s gameplan what a peaceful way to resolve this would be.
Right now, the standard method for dealing with drug smugglers is to send out a SEAL team, increasingly augmented by the DEA’s own shock troops, and with any luck some token Afghan MCN agents, and either grab or kill the targeted individual. If they can’t do that, they at least raid his house, ransack the place, and burn all his merchandise (and usually non-narcotics possessions as well). What if we tried something different? What if, instead of forcing all drug smugglers—only some of whom ideologically support the insurgency (most pay only protection money to local Taliban cells)—we actually gave them incentives to shift their production from drugs to something less profitable but infinitely more sustainable?
To be clear, I am not talking about toxic relationships like what we have with Haji Bashir Noorzai, in which we used private contractors to bribe Afghan officials to lure the man to New York, where he is promptly arrested and charged and convicted and sentenced. What Noorzai’s case demonstrates is, right now drug lords don’t have any options: if they turn themselves in, they run the risk of being convicted for smuggling anyway, and if they remain at large, they might be assassinated.
We have set up perverse incentives to perpetuate the drug war, in other words. Why not change those incentives? The seed handouts are a nice idea (though seriously, who would turn down free stuff?), but they don’t address the more fundamental issue. We cannot realistically kill or capture everyone who runs drugs. But we can offer them reasons to wind down their operations.
This would be most effective with the corrupt government officials who profit from the drugs trade (cough cough, Ahmed Wali Karzai). And it’s not this completed plan I have worked out in my head. But we know for a fact that militarizing the struggle against illicit economic activities does not work—it never has. We have to try something new. Why not approach the problem from a rational economics perspective, and see if we can shift the incentives in place, not just kinetically but in other ways as well?