Some Tricky Numbers

by Joshua Foust on 4/1/2010 · 11 comments

The DEA is really pleased with itself:

Opium seizures in Afghanistan soared 924 percent last year because of better cooperation between Afghan and international forces, the top U.S. drug enforcement official said Thursday.

The Taliban largely funds its insurgency by profits from the opium trade, making it a growing target of U.S. and Afghan anti-insurgency operations. Afghanistan produces the raw opium used to make 90 percent of the world’s heroin.

Leonhart did not give figures for total amounts of drugs seized but said the increase was 924 percent between 2008 and 2009. The United Nations reported 50 tons of opium was seized in the first half of last year.

So, let’s crunch these numbers in a very basic way. Let’s assume that 2009 saw 100 tons of opium seized (this is very ballpark, since harvesting time and processing delays mean there is not a steady flow, but we’re remaining simple here). That would mean in 2008 they only seized around 9 or 10 tons of opium. Just for context’s sake, the UNODC estimated in 2009 that Afghanistan produced nearly 8,500 tons of opium for export.

A 924% increase sounds like a lot. But percentages always do. I can raise profits by 1000% in a single month, but if my original profit was $1, then it’s really not saying too much. This remains a pathetic drop in the bucket, and ensures drug prices stay high (i.e. “profitable”).

Final quibble: why do journalists insist the “Taliban largely funds its insurgency by profits from the opium trade?” The only people to assert this are the DEA, who have something of a vested interest in making the war all about drugs (Gretchen Peters relates an anecdote in her book, where a DEA agent in Islamabad was dumbfounded that the 1980s support for the mujahidin wasn’t about stopping drugs, but stopping the Soviet Union). Other government agencies involved in threat finance and counter-drugs operations like the DIA and CIA vigorously dispute this assertion—The CIA has explicitly stated the insurgency gets far more money from private donations, ransom and extortion, and taxation than they do from opium. Why do we zero in on drugs as if they are the secret to winning the war? It’s non-sensical.

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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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malcolm kyle April 1, 2010 at 9:15 am

What the DEA claims to have been seized is a drop in the ocean compared to what reaches the consumers. Seizers also guarantee that the price of opium is driven massively higher than it would otherwise be, which means even more profits for the Taliban.

Prohibition is a sickening horror and the ocean of incompetence, corruption and human wreckage it has left in its wake is almost endless.

Prohibition has decimated generations and criminalized millions for a behavior which is entwined in human existence, and for what other purpose than to uphold the defunct and corrupt thinking of a minority of misguided, self-righteous Neo-Puritans and degenerate demagogues who wish nothing but unadulterated destruction on the rest of us.

Based on the unalterable proviso that drug use is essentially an unstoppable and ongoing human behavior which has been with us since the dawn of time, any serious reading on the subject of past attempts at any form of drug prohibition would point most normal thinking people in the direction of sensible regulation.

By its very nature prohibition cannot fail but create a vast increase in criminal activity, and rather than preventing society from descending into anarchy, it actually fosters an anarchic business model – the international Drug Trade. Any decisions concerning quality, quantity, distribution and availability are then left in the hands of unregulated, anonymous, ruthless drug dealers, who are interested only in the huge profits involved.

Many of us have now finally wised up to the fact that the best avenue towards realistically dealing with drug use and addiction is through proper regulation, which is what we already do with alcohol & tobacco –two of our most dangerous mood altering substances. But for those of you whose ignorant and irrational minds traverse a fantasy plane of existence, you will no doubt remain sorely upset with any type of solution that does not seem to lead to the absurd and unattainable utopia of a drug free society.

There is an irrefutable connection between drug prohibition and the crime, corruption, disease and death it causes. If you are not capable of understanding this connection, then maybe you’re using something far stronger than the rest of us. Anybody ‘halfway bright’ and who’s not psychologically challenged, should be capable of understanding, that it is not simply the demand for drugs that creates the mayhem; it is our refusal to allow legal businesses to meet that demand.

No amount of money, police powers, weaponry, diminution of rights and liberties, wishful thinking or pseudo-science will make our streets safer; only an end to prohibition can do that. How much longer are you willing to foolishly risk your own survival by continuing to ignore the obvious, historically confirmed solution?

If you still support the kool aid mass suicide cult of prohibition, and erroneously believe that you can win a war without logic and practical solutions, then prepare yourself for even more death, corruption, terrorism, sickness, imprisonment, unemployment, foreclosed homes, and the complete loss of the rule of law and the Bill of Rights.

“A prohibition law strikes a blow at the very principles upon which our government was founded.”
Abraham Lincoln

The only thing prohibition successfully does is prohibit regulation & taxation while turning even our schools and prisons into black markets for drugs. Regulation would mean the opposite!

malcolm kyle April 1, 2010 at 9:18 am

Correction; What the DEA claims to have been seized is a drop in the ocean compared to what reaches the consumers. SeizURES also guarantee that the price of opium is driven massively higher than it would otherwise be, which means even more profits for the Taliban.

For those of you who are still living in some strange parallel universe, one where prohibition actually works, here is part of the testimony of Judge Alfred J Talley, given before the Senate Hearings of 1926:

“For the first time in our history full faith and confidence in and respect for the hitherto sacred Constitution of the United States has been weakened and impaired because this terrifying invasion of natural rights has been engrafted upon the fundamental law of our land, and experience has shown that it is being wantonly and derisively violated in every State, city, and hamlet in the country.”

“It has made potential drunkards of the youth of the land, not because intoxicating liquor appeals to their taste or disposition, but because it is a forbidden thing, and because it is forbidden makes an irresistible appeal to the unformed and immature. It has brought into our midst the intemperate woman, the most fearsome and menacing thing for the future of our national life.”

“It has brought the sickening slime of corruption, dishonor, and disgrace into every group of employees and officials in city, State, and Federal departments that have been charged with the enforcement of this odious law.”


If you support prohibition then you’ve helped trigger the worst crime wave in history.

If you support prohibition you’ve a helped create a black market with massive incentives to hook both adults and children alike.

If you support prohibition you’ve helped to make these dangerous substances available in schools and prisons.

If you support prohibition you’ve helped raise gang warfare to a level not seen since the days of alcohol bootlegging.

If you support prohibition you’ve helped create the prison-for-profit synergy with drug lords.

If you support prohibition you’ve helped remove many important civil liberties from those citizens you falsely claim to represent.

If you support prohibition you’ve helped put previously unknown and contaminated drugs on the streets.

If you support prohibition you’ve helped to escalate Theft, Muggings and Burglaries.

If you support prohibition you’ve helped to divert scarce law-enforcement resources away from protecting your fellow citizens from the ever escalating violence against their person or property.

If you support prohibition you’ve helped overcrowd the courts and prisons, thus making it increasingly impossible to curtail the people who are hurting and terrorizing others.

Joshua Foust April 1, 2010 at 9:21 am

Now now, the DEA says prohibition did work in the 1920s, and that it was a really good idea.

So, clearly we’re wrong that prohibition is a bad idea.

Dafydd April 1, 2010 at 9:41 am

Of dourse you are wrong.

For one thing prohibition makes drugs so much more fun. April 1, 2010 at 9:59 am

Re: “Leon Panetta has explicitly stated the insurgency gets far more money from private donations, ransom and extortion, and taxation than they do from opium.” I’ve been searching the net for a reference for this (good stuff, BTW), but can’t find one – any links you have to share where he said this or was quoted? Thanks!

Joshua Foust April 1, 2010 at 10:08 am

The link is here:

I was imprecise, however. The CIA in general claimed this, not Leon Panetta personally. I modified the post to reflect this, and added a link.

Obama administration officials say the single largest source of cash for the Taliban, once thought to rely mostly on Afghanistan’s booming opium trade to finance its operations, is not drugs but foreign donations. The CIA recently estimated that Taliban leaders and their allies received $106 million in the past year from donors outside Afghanistan.

DE Teodoru April 2, 2010 at 10:34 pm

This fact about foreign sources rather than opium was known for YEARS!!!! April 1, 2010 at 10:12 am

Thanks again for that – much appreciated!

DePetris April 1, 2010 at 12:59 pm

“Why do we zero in on drugs as if they are the secret to winning the war?”

Well, I suspect a large part of the answer is America’s obsession with curbing drugs in its own society.

Let’s look at the United States for a moment:
1) The U.S. is the world’s top market for illicit drugs,
particularly for South and Central America, where drug cultivators and drug traffickers continue to smuggle cocaine and marijuana across U.S. borders to meet America’s demand.

2) U.S. Law enforcement is still way behind the game when it comes to anti-narcotic operations. So much so that some local and state politicians are contemplating whether to legalize marijuana. After, with the drug legalized, the DEA and the U.S. Government don’t have to worry about failure.

3) The DEA has transformed from an agency primarily fighting the drug war in the United States, to a conglomerate that is compelled to fight the narcotics trade in other regions. Therefore, the DEA feels compelled to take this fight to Afghanistan, the country responsible for 90 percent of opium exports.

4) Anti-drug sentiment is so intertwined with western culture that American citizens expect their government to eradicate any narcotic that is illegal.

This doesn’t even consider moral and religious grounds for fighting the drug trade, which are touted quite frequently by the White House and Congress.

It sounds strange, but American values about the drug issue may be responsible for the U.S. Military’s obsession with Afghan opium.

CTuttle April 1, 2010 at 4:14 pm

Aloha, Joshua

Ironically, it’s not just the Opium trade that UNODC is concerned about…

Afghanistan Adds Hash to Its Top Crops

…The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said today the No. 1 producer of opium has also become the world’s top producer of hashish.

“While other countries have even larger cannabis cultivation, the astonishing yield of the Afghan cannabis crop makes Afghanistan the world’s biggest producer of hashish, estimated at between 1,500 and 3,500 tons a year,” UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said.

DE Teodoru April 2, 2010 at 3:09 pm

If you had to attend to the consumers of Afghanistan’s sole cash-crop export, you would not see much of a change. But where a change seems most interesting is intimated in this NYTimes article:

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