Thursday, July 24, 2023
By Steven L. Taylor

The NYT magazine asks Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?

Well, the short answer is: yes, depending on what one means by the term. I don’t think that the opium lords actually run Afghanistan directly, but they clearly have substantial influence. At the end of the day we are talking about an extremely poor country with little in terms of a functioning economy or government that has an ongoing insurgency problem and we find that 1) illegal activity is rampant, 2) highly profitable (and easy to grow) crops are everywhere, and 3) corruption is pervasive. Who could have predicted that?

The article is interesting, as it deals with something I have tried to address before, i.e., that the War on Terror and the War on Drugs often are at odds with one another. In the Afghanistan case, it is clear that that policies are focused first on security/anti-terrorism with drugs coming in second:

the Pentagon strategy was “sequencing” — defeat the Taliban, then have someone else clean up the drug business.

This strikes me as not unreasonable, actually, as while heroin on US streets is hardly a happy thing, we have seen how a group like the Taliban can be far more problematic by providing sanctuary to persons like Osama bin Laden.

Of course, the drug trade can (and does) fund violence, so in that way, the Terror War and Drug War have a common enemy. On the other hand, drugs are made more profitable, and therefore a better source for funding illicit activity because of the Drug War. There is also the problem that pursuing the drug issue can have a negative impact on the prosecution of the terror issue (see, for example, here).

The Afghanistan case is of specific interest to me, as there are those who are seeking to apply the Colombian model to Afghanistan. To wit: the appointment of former Colombian Ambassador William Wood to the same post in Afghanistan. Further, the article notes that another former ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson, has been very much involved in setting drug policy in Afghanistan.

Now, one who is only cursorily aware of Colombia might think that Colombia is a good model given the recent fortunes of the FARC. However, when I speak of the Colombia model in this context, I am talking in terms of narcotics interdiction. Our policies vis-à-vis coca cultivation in Colombia have not been successful if by “successful” one means stopping enough cultivation to actually affect street price and supply. There is little doubt that lots of hectares of coca have been sprayed or pulled up over the years, to the tune of large sums of money (billions and billions of dollars) directly from the US taxpayer. However, given the profitability of the cocaine trade (from cultivation all the way up the chain) these moves have not affected the the cocaine business.

Indeed, those involved in the policy have so bought into the notion that we have been successful, that they are (as noted) seeking to export the policy. The author of the article under discussion is a high level official dedicated to the notion that the drug war is working (Thomas Schweich was Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs).

The drug war logics in question can be seen in the following paragraph from Schweich’s piece:

But because no other crop came even close to the value of poppies, we needed the threat of eradication to force farmers to accept less-lucrative alternatives. (Eradication was an essential component of successful anti-poppy efforts in Guatemala, Southeast Asia and Pakistan.) The most effective method of eradication was the use of herbicides delivered by crop-dusters. But Karzai had long opposed aerial eradication, saying it would be misunderstood as some sort of poison coming from the sky. He claimed to fear that aerial eradication would result in an uprising that would cause him to lose power. We found this argument perplexing because aerial eradication was used in rural areas of other poor countries without a significant popular backlash. The chemical used, glyphosate, was a weed killer used all over the United States, Europe and even Afghanistan. (Drug lords use it in their gardens in Kabul.) There were volumes of evidence demonstrating that it was harmless to humans and became inert when it hit the ground. My assistant at the time was a Georgia farmer, and he told me that his father mixed glyphosate with his hands before applying it to their orchards.

Several things.

1) This demonstrates that all such policies are rooted in the notion that it is possible to combat fundamental laws of supply and demand. Specifically it assumes that the right mix of policies can short circuit the basic human drive to survive and to do the best one can for one’s family.

2) Um, call me crazy, but dumping herbicide from planes and helicopters is “some sort of poison coming from the sky.” As such, I am not sure why Karzai’s objection seems so strange. And despite the way it is presented above, there have been local objections about aerial spraying in other countries. This is not unique to the Afghans.

3) I have used glyphosate (a.k.a., Roundup) in my yard as well. That doesn’t mean I want it dumped on me, my house, and my children from the sky. And make no mistake, aerial spraying doesn’t just result in the chemical falling on the naughty poppies/coca leaves. It falls on people, animals, structures and legal crops (raining on the just and unjust, as it were). And the fact that someone’s Dad mixes it with his hands doesn’t mean much of anything.

However, we see here clear drug war logic. It is assumed that the policies work and that any objections to them aren’t really reasonable. If the drug warriors could just do their jobs, after all, the drug war would be won.

Schweich is also very dismissive of the economic element of the equation:

Earlier this year, the U.N. published an even more detailed paper titled “Is Poverty Driving the Afghan Opium Boom?” It rejected the idea that farmers would starve without the poppy, concluding that “poverty does not appear to have been the main driving factor in the expansion of opium poppy cultivation in recent years.”

The U.N. reports shattered the myth that poppies are grown by destitute farmers who have no other source of income. They demonstrated that approximately 80 percent of the land under poppy cultivation in the south had been planted with it only in the last two years. It was not a matter of “tradition,” and these farmers did not need an alternative livelihood. They had abandoned their previous livelihoods — mainly vegetables, cotton and wheat (which was in severely short supply) — to take advantage of the security vacuum to grow a more profitable crop: opium.

Now, it may well be true that it is possible for a lot of those who grow poppy to subsist otherwise. However, that really isn’t the way to look at it. To wit, the Financial Times noted in 2023:

Officials concede nothing can compete economically with the lucrative crop, which yielded about $4,600 per hectare last year, according to United Nations estimates – more than 10 times the income from wheat.

Now, if I am farmer and I can choose to “not starve” and make $460 per hectare a year or I can make ten times that amount (and with an easier to grow crop), I wonder what choice I will make?

Sure, the security situation makes this all more likely, but that is hardly a shock.

The article recommends a forceful push against Karzai (and the Pentagon, for that matter) to start aerial spraying and to increase US anti-drug personnel in the country. One suspects that such a policy prescription would lead to a loss of power by Karzai and would ultimately not eradicate enough poppy to do anything other than drive up the street price of opium and heroin (if it would even be enough to do that). Such a move with likely empower the Taliban within Afghanistan (as the regional warlords would cooperate even less with the government, and therefore with the US) and it would also increase their ability to finance their operations. But, of course, we would kill a bunch of poppy plants, often destroying the livelihoods of peasants in the process.

Update: To summarize the summary of the summary:

1) It is no surprise that poppies are being widely cultivated in Afghanistan at the moment.

2) It therefore no surprise that the corrupting influence of drug money infuse the government.

3) Aerial spraying is heavily supported by drug warriors, but the evidence suggests it does not produce the promised results.

4) The US’s main interest in the region is the curtailment of the Taliban and therefore the administration’s focus (and its semi-blind eye to the drugs) is not a surprise.

5) The sad fact of the matter is the that the area is going to produce opium whether we like it or not, and even if we spend trillions to stop it, we won’t be able to do so.

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7 Responses to “Afghanistan the Narco-State/Thoughts on the Drug War”

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    1. Gary Rumor Says:

      Your insights bear out in the recent reports that the Coca crop in Columbia has increased not decreased. What we need is not more eradication but something to remove the incentive and that is for the price of Heroin and Cocaine to drop to the level they would be if they were legal, or if there were no demand for the drugs due to a radical shift in the culture. We could try to return to a relative state of grace, as existed in the 1950′s when drug addiction was limited to Jazz musicians and a few inner city hard core types. But that is not likely to happen soon. The demand exists.
      An easier solution would be to simply legalize the drug, better yet, decriminalize them, but legalization would provide a new tax source to help fund any social problems that might occur. But if a dose of Heroin was reduced to a Dollar a dose, with another dollar for tax, you have a reasonably priced product that anyone could afford another source of income for the state and it would bring a large number of people out of the underground economy. It would force groups like the FARC and the Taliban and the CIA to find other means of funding their activities.
      But that raises the question does the powers that be really want an end to the drug wars? Any more than they want an end to the war on Terror, or whatever the latest excuse for maintaining a military-industrial-prison complex may be. As a reasonably intelligent person wrote, “you cannot blow up a social relationship”.

    2. MSS Says:

      Please don’t use glyphosate!

    3. MSS Says:

      On the substance (so to speak) of the post:

      Of course, Afghanistan is a narco-state. It is also a regular scene of suicide terrorism. Neither was the case before December, 2023.

      Leave it to Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld to screw up an easy one.

      Yet as far as I can tell, Obama’s only interest in Afghanistan is to use it to inoculate himself against his alleged withdrawal plan for Iraq, even though with none other than the US-installed PM of Iraq essentially favoring Obama’s Iraq policy, he should not need to advocate throwing good money after bad and squandering more blood and treasure on another losing war.

      But then I hardly should expect anything better out of the US political process.

    4. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

      @MSS – I am legitimately curious: is your objection glyphosate-specific or just generically part of an anti-herbicide position?

    5. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

      @MSS – (I say this not as defense of the troika in question, btw). I think you can make a case that Afghanistan had elements of being a narco-state under the Taliban. Yes, there was the fatwah against cultivation, but they still taxed poppy trafficking–as such, the opium trade was part of the revenue stream.

      But screwed up now? Oh, yes.

      Some of this, however, was inevitable (in re: poppies anyway).

    6. Captain D Says:

      I’m a little late getting to this because I was out of town, but lots of good points.

      If we really want to squash the Opium trade in the Stan, the Taliban needs to be run out of the lawless areas (basically everywhere but the cities these days) of the country, as they are now very actively involved in the protection, transportation, and smuggling of drugs. Which is a bit odd when you really think about it, as they have always been a group to claim purity under Sharia law. Every Sharia-driven society that I know of forbids drugs, and a lot of them forbid even mild ones like alcohol. The rationale, as it was explained to me, is that God wants people to have sound intellect and he has forbidden things that corrupt or weaken it, such as alcohol and drugs. He has also mandated punishments to keep people from doing them, because a sound intellect is the basis of the moral responsibility that humans were given. The Taliban, being perhaps the most strict imposers of Sharia in the world prior to our invasion, being actively involved in drugs. . . well, it just goes to show what they really are – power-hungry thugs who will use whatever means they can to get and keep power. Today it’s religion; tomorrow it’s drugs.

      Those who would like Colombia to Afghanistan would do well to understand that terrorism of the latin american variety is very different in style, organization, and ultimate goals than terrorism of the middle eastern variety. The social pressures working within the two societies are also not completely the same, although the presence of some common elements makes the prospect of comparing the two very tantalizing. On the tactical end, the methods typically employed by south american insurgents is very different from those employed by the insurgents of Afghanistan and the middle east (although Afghanistan is really a central asian state, its insurgency is middle eastern in character).

      Anywhere you have poverty and a climate that is conducive to illegal crops, you’re going to have a drug problem. I find the idea of dumping herbicide from planes appalling. I hope saner minds prevail, but when it comes to drug strategy, I’m not holding my breath.

      Rooting out the remnants of the Taliban would be the way to slow the drug trade. No way to do that except to put more of the right kind of soldiers in the theater, and I’m not sure that’s going to happen (although, curiously, I find that in general people are more supportive of military efforts in the Stan than in Iraq; I wonder if that would actually hold if we started really spending money, lives, and resources there over a period of some years). No way to do that without either reducing our presence in Iraq or raising a bigger military. Of the two I find the former to be a more probable course of action, but wonder at the long-term efficacy of such a plan (the re-deployment of units from Iraq to the Stan) as I am pretty sure that Iraq would quickly degenerate into a lawless place that would have all the same problems that Afghanistan does, and then some; we’d be trading one mess for another.

      No quick and easy fix for either place.

    7. Dr. Steven Taylor Says:

      @Captain D – Welcome back–I had wondered where you had gotten off to!

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