Stop Attacking Income!

by Joshua Foust on 3/31/2010 · 8 comments

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?


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on Registan.net.

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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{ 8 comments }

Andy March 31, 2010 at 6:49 pm

DEA “shock troops?”

reader March 31, 2010 at 7:00 pm

tinfoil hat alert! Is Monsanto involved at all in this seed distribution program? Just hope they aren’t distributing MONSANTO’s patented, non-germinating floral mutants. If so, that’s the last thing Afghans need, to be debt-slave sharecroppers for Monsanto. I’ve read that Monsanto is trying to push soya cultivation.

DE Teodoru April 1, 2010 at 2:22 pm

Bravo READER. NPR Science Friday ran a great panel on MONSANTO seeds ugenics in line with your voiew:

http://www.npr.org/rss/podcast.php?id=510221

Nathan Hamm March 31, 2010 at 8:48 pm

So you’re saying this was definitely initiated by a farmer angry at anti-poppy programs? There are multiple credible alternative explanations — one mentioned in the story. But the way you’re setting up the situation almost makes it sound as if some down-on-his-luck farmer without any alternative went out in an act of angry protest.

I know the paragraph after the blockquote — the one to which I’m referring — can be read a couple ways, but there’s enough ambiguity in there to muddy the description of the process you’re talking about.

Joshua Foust March 31, 2010 at 9:04 pm

Yeah, I definitely didn’t want to imply it was just some farmer who did this (and I don’t think I ever said or implied anyone “definitely” did it). The actual bomber could be any one of a number of people – a Taliban, some other insurgent, a poor soul down on his luck – but the person responsible was quite probably tied to the drug industry in some way.

There’s also the chance that some opportunist just saw a big crowd of people and it happened to be a CN program. But it’s reasonable to think an attack against an anti-poppy program in Helmand is more than just coincidental. That’s what I meant.

Nathan Hamm March 31, 2010 at 9:35 pm

I just feel the need to occasionally ping you on precision.

Be happy that I’m not doing what I’ve done to just about everyone else who has talked to me the last week. If I were, we’d end up with 400 comments in one big thread, and all of mine would be “Why is that important?”

Joshua Foust March 31, 2010 at 9:37 pm

Oh trust me, I respect your powers and appreciate your restraint in using them.

TJM April 1, 2010 at 12:09 am

Rather than diverting efforts toward an alternative crop (I’m guessing this is incredibly difficult), why not just help pro-government folks to grab market share from the anti-government folks? It’s certainly messy, but it would shift illicit funds from Taliban to Karzai. Not that Karzai is a palatable alternative, but at least he’s not shooting at us (so far as I know) and he is making (however half-hearted) attempts to sustain something resembling a central government. In four years, start cracking down on him and his cronies prior to the next election and if security is more manageable then the election will be easier to monitor and he’ll get voted out of office (and then hopefully arrested).

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