Turning “a Blind Eye” to the Afghan Opium Problem by Jeremy R. Hammond

by Jeremy R. Hammond
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
Foreign Policy Journal
22 March, 2010

The New York Times has an illuminating article regarding the opium trade in Afghanistan. The title is “U.S. Turns a Blind Eye to Opium in Afghan Town“, and it begins (emphasis added):

The effort to win over Afghans on former Taliban turf in Marja has put American and NATO commanders in the unusual position of arguing against opium eradication, pitting them against some Afghan officials who are pushing to destroy the harvest.

See, this is “unusual” because the U.S. had until this summer made eradication the principle means by which they ostensibly combated the drug problem. This had been U.S. policy despite the fact that pretty much every expert in the field (such as from the UNODC and World Bank) agrees that eradication is useless at best and counterproductive at worst, with the general consensus being that it is actually harmful since it targets the farmers who simply grow poppies in an attempt to alleviate poverty instead of targeting the drug lords responsible for the actual trade, and because it can (and is) actually used as a means by which to eliminate competition and thus help the major drug lords even further corner the market.

In other words, eradication only really makes sense not as a means to combat the drugs trade, but only to consolidate control of the drug trade. That’s actually perfectly well understood in the literature, but not something the U.S. government really makes much attempt to inform the public about (for the obvious reason).

Then last summer, the U.S. announced that it was going to revise it’s policy. The new policy would focus less on eradication (“less” being the key word; as the Times also notes, “the United States government’s official position is still to support opium crop eradication in general”). At the same time, the U.S. would target drug lords linked to the Taliban and only drug lords linked to the Taliban.

In other words, the U.S. implemented a policy that specifically excluded the vast majority of the drug trade, which is controlled by drug lords, warlords, and government officials not connected to the Taliban, from being targeted.

Or, to put it yet another way, the U.S. would escalate its efforts to consolidate the control of the drug trade by the most significant drug lords (for instance, President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is reportedly a [or the] leading drug lord in Afghanistan and also on the CIA payroll).

If that sounds shocking or outlandish to you, consider the fact that by UNODC estimates, the Taliban is actually only responsible for earning about 5% of the profits from the Afghan opium trade (that is $90-160 million out of a $3.4 billion trade by 2008 figures), and that is earned primarily through ushr, a tax on all agriculture, and secondarily through other taxes (such as tolls amounting to “protection” money) and not through direct participation in or control over the trade (i.e. growing poppy, manufacturing heroin, trafficking drugs across the border, etc.)

The “unusual” move not to eradicate is actually not very unusual if one understands that the U.S. policy has nothing to do with trying to reduce or eliminate the drug trade. It’s only if one actually believes the ludicrous claim that the U.S. is trying to combat the drugs trade that this seems odd. If one understands the consequences of U.S. policy and the reasons for it, with the presumption that U.S. policymakers are sane and rational actors who intend to produce the consequences that logically and predictably follow their actions, this becomes the most obvious course of action and not the least bit puzzling.

Actually, that goes for U.S. policy in general. But I digress.

The New York Times article actually illustrates this quite nicely, though this is apparently lost upon the author, Rod Nordland, and the editors of the Times. It continues:

From Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal on down, the military’s position is clear: “U.S. forces no longer eradicate,” as one NATO official put it. Opium is the main livelihood of 60 to 70 percent of the farmers in Marja, which was seized from Taliban rebels in a major offensive last month. American Marines occupying the area are under orders to leave the farmers’ fields alone.

“Marja is a special case right now,” said Cmdr. Jeffrey Eggers, a member of the general’s Strategic Advisory Group, his top advisory body. “We don’t trample the livelihood of those we’re trying to win over.”

So, trampling the livelihood of Afghans is fine, so long as it’s the Taliban that reaps some rewards from their poppy cultivation. It’s only something the U.S. doesn’t do so long as the U.S. is actually in control of the area where the poppies are grown. In that case, growing poppies is just fine. Carry on.

This is not to say that the U.S. should eradicate poppy fields in Marja. That would be a horrible thing to do, for reasons touched on above. But that decision must be understood in context.

The Times adds:

American military officials and United Nations drug officials see it the other way around. Opium cultivation has been largely wiped out in 20 provinces where security has been improved, and in the seven most insecure provinces, poppy is still farmed.

Now, one might be tempted to point that out as evidence that I am totally wrong and the U.S. “anti-drug” policy does indeed work (as we are told it is supposed to, that is). But that would only be true if the above implied logic was correct. It is not. Any journalist worth his paycheck could read the UNODC annual reports to learn that. (After all, guys like me, who’ve never been paid a single dime for a single article we’ve ever had published, do actual research and investigating all the time, so why not the people who actually make a living as so-called “journalists”?).

The implied logic is something like this: Since the U.S. has made 20 provinces more secure, and since opium cultivation has been largely wiped out in those provinces, therefore the U.S. is effectively combating the problem.

But that’s a fallacious argument because it ignores what are actually the primary factors involved in farmers choosing whether or not to grow poppy, as reported in the annual UNODC survey. The single most overriding factor is that of profit. Can growing poppy alleviate poverty? If yes, then a farmer is more likely to grow. If no, they will find something else to grow.

In the south, poppy crops have a higher opium yield than elsewhere in the country. Partly as a result of overproduction (Afghanistan has produced so much opium that it far outweighs global demand), combined with other factors, like drought in the north, lack of irrigation, etc., farm gate prices have dropped in recent years. Farmers in other provinces largely chosen not to grow poppy because it was no longer profitable. Many switched to cannabis, for example, because it is far less labor-intensive than opium.

But in the south, and in Helmand in particular, the yield is higher and thus poppy cultivation can still be profitable.

To illustrate this phenomenon and easily demonstrate the point and the fallacy of the above argument (that the U.S. policy is successful in the ostensible goal of combating the drug trade), the U.S. boasted that, according to the UNODC, the amount of area used to cultivate Afghanistan has declined significantly. That’s very true. The acreage has indeed been significantly reduced. In fact, its been reduced by an enormous amount.

But what they don’t tell you is that the overall yield of the poppy that is grown is far higher than in previous years, and thus the total amount of opium production was actually only lessened by a small amount. And the decrease was more easily attributable to the massive overproduction and the simple market economy principle of supply and demand to anything the U.S. has done, which has primarily been to take actions knowingly and predictably resulting in the consolidation of the drug trade into the hands of a smaller number of increasingly powerful drug lords and to eliminate competition for those individuals.

Perhaps U.S. policymakers are actually insane. One could make that argument. Short of that, though, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the elephant in the room. Of course, the New York Times, et al, do a pretty good job of turning a blind eye to the obvious.

Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent journalist and the Editor of Foreign Policy Journal, an online source for news, critical analysis, and opinion commentary on U.S. foreign policy from outside the standard framework as defined by political officials and the mainstream corporate media. He was among the recipients of the 2010 Project Censored Awards for outstanding investigative journalism, and is the author of “The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination”, available from Amazon.com.