Opium & Security: Chicken vs. Egg

Part of the fight in Afghanistan is dealing with opium growing and trafficking to eliminate security issues, but could this approach be puttingh the cart before the horse?

Counter-narcotic efforts are sold, in part, as a way, to keep cash out of teh Taliban’s hands – this, from a recent NATO news release:

“…. The confiscation and destruction of this contraband demonstrates the skill and resolve of Afghan security forces, ISAF, and coalition forces in successfully targeting illegal activities that finance the insurgency ….”

Allison Brown, a former Counternarcotics Advisor to the Government of Afghanistan, shares her thoughts on what needs to be done on this front in a paper shared via Small Wars Journal.  Most of her ideas, like calls to increase security, and improve infrastructure and market access to market, make sense.  However, this one, as pointed by Joshua Foust at Registan.net, maybe not so much:

“…. subsidize factories that pay weekly wages to absorb poppy workers. Who would choose stoop labor in distant poppy fields over comfortable conditions working alongside friends and family members? What does it matter, really, if there is nothing that the Afghans can make that anyone wants? Subsidizing make-work is cheaper monetarily and politically than fighting and over time builds a skilled workforce ….”

In fact, Registan.net shares a link to an interesting paper out of the University of Oslo (.pdf), pointing out the fact that it’s the conflict that causes the poppy cultivation, not the other way around:

“…. We show that the recent rise in Afghan opium production is caused by violent conicts. Violence destroys roads and irrigation, crucial to alternative crops, and weakens local incentives to rebuild infrastructure and enforce law and order ….  We therefore conclude that the dramatic rise in Afghan poppy cultivation in the period 2002-2007 is a direct consequence of the rising violent conficts in the country. This is why we claim that narcotics production is conflct-induced….”

The paper also calculates it’s the CONFLICT, not the PRESENCE OF WESTERN TROOPS that appears to cause opium production:

“…. we find no support for the hypothesis that there will be an increase in opium production in areas controlled by Western forces due to safer smuggling routes ….”

The “pay fhem for make work” ideas may be an offshoot of an approach advocated by the International Council on Security and Development (formerly known as the Senlis Council).  The group is pushing for, essentially, legalizing and regulating the opium trade in Afghanistan to make it above board:

“…. A village-based economic solution to Afghanistan’s poppy crisis is available, which links Afghanistan’s two most valuable resources – poppy cultivation and strong local village control systems – through the controlled cultivation of poppy for the village-based production of morphine. Based on extensive on-the-ground research, ICOS has developed a Poppy for Medicine project model for Afghanistan as a means of bringing illegal poppy cultivation under control in an immediate yet sustainable manner. The key feature of the model is that village-cultivated poppy would be transformed into morphine tablets in the Afghan villages. The entire production process, from seed to medicine tablet, can thus be controlled by the village in collaboration with government and international actors, and all economic profits from medicine sales will remain in the village, allowing for economic diversification ….”

I am no expert at alternative crop strategies and approaches, especially while there’s firing still under way.  I also concede it’s not an easy shift to be made from opium to something legal.  From what little I read, though, in reports from non-partisan sources like the Congressional Research Service:

“…. Across Afghanistan, militia commanders, criminal organizations, and corrupt officials have exploited narcotics as a reliable source of revenue and patronage, which has perpetuated the threat these groups pose to the country’s fragile internal security and the legitimacy of its embryonic democratic government …. many observers have warned that drugrelated corruption among appointed and elected Afghan officials may create new political obstacles to further progress ….”

and the length of time any progress can be made in a country that’s been hurting so long, I’m not confident any regulation or legalization effort can be carried out without major push back from the players benefiting from the status quo. Especially when there’s still fighting under way.

The last quote is from a report last updated in January 2008.  I’d be glad to hear from anyone who can tell me it’s much different now, but I suspect not so much.

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