False Progess

by Joshua Foust on 9/30/2010 · 3 comments

According to the UN, Afghanistan’s opium harvest this year was “halved” because of a crop disease. Sounds great, right? Not so fast.

Sudden, catastrophic decreases in opium supplies have two major effects within Afghanistan: they dramatically raise the price of opium, and they severely stress the farmers that rely on opium for income. The problems related to the first effect are obvious: an expensive crop is a tempting crop to grow, and more money for opium (don’t forget the universal assumption that the drug lords have years of supply stockpiled) means more money for baddies and criminals, both of which make it more likely there will be a moderate spike in growth next year.

The consequence from the second effect, stressing farmers, is much more worrying. Most opium farmers buy their seeds and food for the year on credit from drug lords (a system called salaam, which I discuss a bit here). When the Taliban frightened everyone into not planting opium in the year 2000, the economic effects were so great that something like 30,000 people fled to Pakistan from Helmand alone to avoid defaulting on specific loans. Post-Taliban, we’ve seen other cases where a catastrophic and sudden loss of opium income has resulted in farmers selling off their children to avoid violent reprisals from drug lords unwilling to accept a default.

No opium means they have no means of repayment. We shouldn’t celebrate a sudden and catastrophic loss of opium crops. It will hurt precisely the people we don’t want to—farmers—while not affecting the people we do want to—smugglers. It is a disaster. The only way to wean Afghanistan off opium is to do so gradually, giving normal people a chance to adapt. It is only this year that the international community decided to develop a microcredit system in Afghanistan. That’s a good first start. Another one is to stop the seed handouts: farmers know how to get what they want. So long as we subsidize bad decisions, we don’t help them develop a non-opium based self-sufficiency.

Either way, for God’s sake, let’s please not rejoice at this economic catastrophe.

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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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Bobby September 30, 2010 at 2:20 pm


In my experience, traditional microfinance (generally geared toward merchants and vendors) usually doesn’t fare so well with agricultural programs– this is because the farming cycle has a relatively long lead time from planting to harvest to market, and even subsidized interest rates (usually around 18% for a $3k to $5k loan) often tend to outpace what the borrower is going to be able to pay back at the end of the loan. To make it work, it usually has to be targeted to the agricultural sector, usually trading a reduced interest rate for higher collateral (often in the form of the land itself, which can create its own problems in the case of a natural disaster that destroys a harvest and leads to crisis strategies, but that’s a different matter). My understanding is that the MAIL has been working to get just such a program off the ground but it is going to have to be closely watched and supported by the expats (and presumably, only those expats who know how such programs work) in order to make sure it creates its desired effects and doesn’t become a wasted effort.


Grant September 30, 2010 at 11:03 pm

So who’s rejoicing exactly? This doesn’t really help NATO or the national government and given the nature of rumors in Afghanistan they probably think we did it.

FeFe October 10, 2010 at 11:27 am

And what of the economic catastrophe of people addicted to drugs? You state more time is needed for the peaceful farmer who cares not of the poison he inflicts on other people’s children. Despite our best intentions maybe everything we have done has been wrong but it does not cover the fact that those we are helping care not for the sacrafices in blood and treasure of the peaceful American farmer who would never dream of poisoning Afgan children with drugs.

By all means, “the only way to wean ..Mexico.. off ..drug cartels.. is to do so gradually, giving normal people a chance to adapt.” It has worked so well but “either way, for God’s sake, let’s please not rejoice at this economic catastrophe.”

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