The virtues of doing nothing: Why focusing on Afghanistan’s opium makes the opium problem worse

July 21, 2009

Joshua Foust is an American military analyst. He blogs about Central Asia and Afghanistan at Registan.net . Reuters is not responsible for the content – the views are the author’s alone.

It would be an understatement to call opium cultivation in Afghanistan America’s headache. The issue of illegal drug cultivation and smuggling has vexed policymakers for three decades, and led to a multi-billion dollar campaign to combat the phenomenon.

Opium causes all of our problems, so they say—according to a factsheet at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul (pdf), opium creates instability, funds the insurgency, and wreaks havoc on the government. They’re not alone – entire books have been written on the subject.

The blame game on opium, however, ignores a critical – and quite uncomfortable – fact: it misses the point. The reality is, while the cultivation of opium does not help matters from a Western perspective, in Afghanistan it is actually a healthy economic activity. The concerns over its cultivation, too, are overblown: even a brief look at the numbers show it to be at best a trailing indicator of insecurity, insurgency, corruption, and economic malaise. Opium, therefore, is only an indicator of other, more substantial problems.

Consider, for example, what I call The Nangarhar Swing. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, in 2005 Nangarhar produced nearly 1/5 of Afghanistan’s opium, but was virtually poppy-free in 2006. 2007 saw a 285 percent increase (pdf) in cultivation, making the province one of the country’s top poppy producers. Yet in 2008, it was once again virtually poppy-free (pdf). This shift cannot be tied only to security, as many like to claim: according to the violence statistics compiled by the Long War Journal, even as Nangarhar has stopped the large scale cultivation of opium, it has become steadily more violent. Moreover, there are many other areas of the country, like Khost province along the border with Pakistan, or Kunar province further north, where the insurgency has become worse even as those provinces were emptied of opium.

The discrepancy is really a trick of language: When the UNODC declares a province poppy-free, what they mean is, production there is “negligible”, not non-existent. Whether that is in the context of total production, other provinces, or some sort of absolute number (a percentage of arable land or total worldwide opium production) isn’t really clear. In Nangarhar, several times declared “poppy free” by the UNODC, there remain active opium eradication missions in outlying districts such as Sherzad. What’s noteworthy about it is not the presence of some fairly smallish opium farms in southwestern Nangarhar, as most opium farms are small family affairs. What is interesting is the density of the farms. In a single 5 km stretch of the countryside, teams found and destroyed 100 poppy fields. For a supposedly poppy-free province, that is simply stunning.

It also covers up the substantial effect of destroying the opium economy. In many parts of Afghanistan, opium is the economy, and the World Bank estimated in 2008 it accounts for 1/3 of the country’s economy. In opium-adjacent communities, opium funds underpin the entire local economy: especially in the opium “heartland” in the South, the only way for small farmers to get microcredit loans or deal with exporters is through opium traders. Through a system of loans called salaam, they in essence create informal futures markets on crops… but only opium. Cereal crops and fruits, or other licit agriculture, are not included in this system (even though it is possible for other actors, whether the government or NGOs, to provide this service). In fact, the ways these markets have developed in the south is remarkably similar to how informal credit markets formed in rural medieval Europe. It is normal. The West just happens to dislike the crop.

But even in opium “success stories”, there are significant problems to simply removing the crop. In Nangarhar, the wild swings in opium prices and cultivation crashed the rural economy again and again. Most of the microcredit salaam loans farmers take out are not denominated in any currency – they pay in opium. So, when prices crash or an eradication team sweeps through, farmers become trapped in a horrendous debt cycle where the only means of escape is to grow yet more opium. There are even rumors of farmers selling a daughter or son to the traffickers in payment, and many families have fled to either Iran or Pakistan to avoid reprisals for unpaid opium debt.

There is a more fundamental economic problem to growing poppy, however: areas that grow opium actually tend to be the wealthiest. Sherzad District in Nangarhar, where there is still opium cultivation and eradication, actually has relatively high income compared to the rest of Nangarhar. According to the International Monetary Fund (pdf), when Nangarhar province saw a huge drop in opium cultivation in 2005/6, province-wide GDP was about $1.3 billion (which was a big drop from the year before, when there was much more opium). The next year, 2006/7, when opium production spiked 285%, province-level GDP rose to $3.2 billion, only to fall the next year to $1.8 billion as the UNODC declared it poppy-free.

So what is to be done? The Obama administration has wisely recognized that opium eradication is a non-starter, and does far more harm than the marginal good of destroying some opium crops. UNODC Chief Antonio Maria Costa recently agreed, and suggested a “flood of drugs” in its place. Under this plan, somehow the borders of Afghanistan would be sealed so that no drugs can “escape”, in their words, thus crashing the price of opium. Feasible or not, Costa’s idea at least tries to examine other ways of reducing the need for opium cultivation. Looking at opium cultivation as an economic factor, however, leads one to many other conclusions that are inconvenient for a political and military apparatus designed to oppose the very idea of drug cultivation.

If opium is an economic puzzle, and not a political-military one, then there should be an economic (or at least non-military) solution to it. Several years ago, the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit published a study (pdf) comparing the factors behind the cultivation of opium in adjacent provinces in the “poppy-free” north. Water shortages, soil moisture and salinity, severe socioeconomic inequality driving food insecurity, a poor presence of formal institutions, all have decisive impacts on a household decision whether or not to cultivate opium.

More recently, a team of Norwegian researchers has noted a strong causation between violence and opium cultivation, but not in the way most think: in their research paper (pdf), they assert that opium follows conflict, and not the other way around. In other words, opium cultivation is simply a feature of ungoverned conflict zones, and especially in Afghanistan, something people do as a last resort when other economic activities fail to provide for their families.

Taken together, these studies (and the many others like them—this is a growing field of study) point to a counterintuitive conclusion: do nothing. That is, focusing only on opium misses the point, and doesn’t address the reasons why it is grown. If opium cultivation were an indicator of an ungoverned or contested space, then that would indicate that making that space governed and uncontested would also address the opium.

There are a few examples even within Afghanistan where governance and security came first, and then opium cultivation simply dropped off. Badakhshan province was the only province in the country that was completely Taliban-free in 2001, and as a result was the only one to grow opium in any really measurable amount during the Taliban’s prohibition. Since the American invasion, it has remained mostly quiet, and has seen a growing success in both trade connections to neighboring areas and better governance by multiple levels of officials. As an aid worker active there told me recently, “the price of poppy has fallen fastest in the north (where the poppy has a lower morphine content), and in Badakhshan, farmers can already make more from okra or onions than opium.” Selling vegetables is relatively low risk and carries a good profit margin – something that cannot be said for the majority of Afghanistan’s non-subsistence farmers.

Drug traffickers have taken enormous measures to lower the risk of drug cultivation, but the development community has not taken the time to do so for legal agriculture. It remains prohibitively expensive to ship anything out of Afghanistan, and border politics especially with Pakistan (one worker recently complained that difficulties in crossing the border into Pakistan meant an entire crop of potatoes from Khost province rotted at the border crossing, unsold) keep export-driven agriculture uncertain and extremely risky. By focusing so much of its energies onto eradication or somehow controlling the cultivation of opium, both the International Community and the government of Afghanistan have ignored providing other ways for farmers to make money legally – even when Alternative Livelihood programs exist in an area, they’re poorly administered and often barely make a dent in the local economy.

So why not do nothing? Opium is not Afghanistan’s biggest problem – it is horrendous poverty, bad infrastructure and no security. When it comes to all three problems, Afghanistan faces two major hurdles – underinvestment (money, equipment, education, health, and security) and corruption-driven illegitimacy. Making matters worse, the overwhelming majority of aid in the country flows outside government channels or oversight, which undercuts Kabul’s legitimacy even among the people it helps.

Focusing only on opium, therefore, doesn’t actually focus on the more fundamental problems facing the country. It is an obsession on symptoms, while the causes go unaddressed. The missing piece of governance, and with it the development of the necessary institutions of society and economy, is the critically ignored piece of almost all plans to eliminate opium in Afghanistan. And as examples like Badakhshan have shown, when even moderate progress is made on these fronts, people will voluntarily switch to growing other crops, and they will make enough money to support themselves. It’s enough to make one wonder just why there needs to be a plan in the first place. It’s counterintuitive, but scrapping the West’s counternarcotics policies is surest way to actually achieve the counternarcotics goal of a poppy-free Afghanistan.

(Reuters photos: Opium fields in Farah province/Goran Tomasevic)

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