On U.S. Drug Policy in Afghanistan

The New York Times reports:

The Obama administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan told allies on Saturday that the United States was shifting its drug policy in Afghanistan away from eradicating opium poppy fields and toward interdicting drug supplies and cultivating alternative crops.

“The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure,” the representative, Richard C. Holbrooke, told reporters on the margins of the Group of 8 conference in the northern Italian city of Trieste, Reuters reported. “They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work and they alienated people and drove people into the arms of the Taliban.”

Mr. Holbrooke said the United States would begin phasing out eradication efforts, which generally have involved spraying or plowing under poppy fields, often under fire from Taliban militants or angry farmers. Instead, he said, more emphasis would be placed on helping Afghan farmers make a living through other crops and on seizing both drugs coming out of the country and growing and processing supplies coming in.

Mr. Holbrooke said Saturday that the United States had “wasted hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars” on the eradication program. “The poppy farmer is not our enemy. The Taliban are,” he was reported as saying.

And Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, praised the shift, calling eradication efforts “a sad joke” — sad because so many Afghan security forces had been killed in the efforts, though only “about 3 percent of the volume” had been eradicated, Reuters said.

Afghanistan supplies more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin, and the drug trade is estimated to account for about half of Afghanistan’s economy. The United Nations estimates that in 2007, the Taliban made as much as $300 million from the opium trade.

Any move away from eradication is a good thing. Eradication is at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive, and it only hurts the poor farmers who grow poppies to alleviate their poverty. Also, eradication becomes a useful tool for corrupt government officials to target the competition for themselves or for some other drug lord. And it pushes farm-gate prices up, so the drug lords laugh all the way to the bank, er, hawala broker.

I can’t imagine why it’s taken this long for U.S. policy to shift away from this strategy. It just boggles my mind. I can think of only two logical explanations: One, policymakers are completely incompetent, or, two, we’ve been trying to strengthen the drug lords and help keep prices up as supply has outweighed demand. If that was our goal, we’ve done a good job.

I’m pretty surprised by Holbrooke’s comments recognizing and acknowledging some of this (the harm to farmers, its counterproductivity, government corruption, etc.). He’s right. But the focus I’m seeing is on Taliban. The Taliban a) don’t control opium production and b) aren’t responsible for drug trafficking. It’s true enough they profit from the trade, but they profit through ushr, a tax on all agriculture, and on tolls (or “protection” money, if you want to look at it that way) for those who are doing the trafficking.

The media constantly reports that the UNODC estimated that the Taliban made $300m from the trade last year, but that’s incorrect. The number was actually closer to half a million on the high end of the estimate, but that was for all Anti-Government Elements (AGEs). The NYT constantly groups all AGEs as “Taliban”. But in actuality, there’s no way of knowing how much of that amount goes to the Taliban and how much to other AGEs. All together, the AGEs slice of the profits from the trade is just a fraction, maybe 14 percent or so of the total estimated profits on exports.

Sounds to me like they’re going to try to strangle the Taliban’s profits from the trade. Fine. Good. But what about the drug lords who bring in the lion’s share of the profits from exports? What about government officials who are either drug lords themselves (*cough* Rashid Dostum *cough*) or corrupted by drug lords? Are we going to get serious about dealing with them?

And what about after the drugs leave Afghanistan? The real profits are made not by those who ship the drugs out of Afghanistan, but by those who ship them through Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, to the final destination, principally being European countries. Product costs soar exponentially for each border crossed. The $3.4 billion estimated by UNODC for drug profits last year is just the export value from Afghanistan. That itself is just a tiny fraction of the total profits being made by drug lords from Afghan opium globally.

If the U.S. wants to do something about the problem, why not also work with the government of Turkey to shut down the highway through their country to get opium and heroin into Europe? It’s always Taliban, Taliban, Taliban. What about corrupt Turkish officials involved in the trade? What about drug lords in Pakistan, like Dawood Ibrahim, who lives in Karachi and who is clearly protected by the ISI? Are we going to do something about them, too?

And what about dealing on the consumer end, treating drug addiction not as a crime but as a social problem and instead of throwing drug offenders in prison, getting them treatment? Reduce demand enough so that farm-gate prices become less for Afghan farmers than, say, growing wheat, and they’ll switch over.

If the U.S. is going to get serious about the drug problem in Afghanistan, the focus cannot simply be the Taliban. If it is, we’re not serious, simple as that. This new announced policy is a step in the right direction, but it remains to be seen how serious they are about actually stopping the drug problem and how much of this is just a minimal step taken due to public pressure and recognition of the total inadequacy (to put it very mildly) of U.S. drug policy in Afghanistan.

For a lengthy discussion, see my article, “The New York Times Misleads on Role of Taliban in Opium Trade” from last November.

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