The Opium Economy, Part 2

Opium trade profits the insurgency in Afghanistan, and according to President Hamid Karzai, is “the single greatest challenge to long term security, development, and effective governance” in his country.  But what has the government done to combat opium production?

This is the second part of our report on the illicit opium economy in Afghanistan, and part of our ongoing series documenting the economy off Afghanistan and the measures required to sustain the Afghan state.

This week, WNR’s Alan Zhao investigates to find out more about the effectiveness of counter- narcotics efforts.

NARRATOR: Once again, let’s begin with the numbers.  According to the United Nations Office of Drug Control, or UNODC, approximately 70000 hectares of opium poppy were cultivated in 2002.  The UNODC’s 2010 report, estimated production at 90000 hectares.  In 2009, UNODC estimated the total value of exported heroin to be 3.4 billion US dollars, approximately one third of the nation total GDP.  Afghanistan remains the supplier of 90% of the world’s opium.  But the Afghan government and international partners have spent billions of dollars in counter-narcotics efforts over the past decade.  Why haven’t the numbers changed?

NARRATOR:  Adam Pain is a rural development expert at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent think tank based in Kabul.  According to him, the foremost problem is there simply has not been a unified effort.

PAIN: It is very difficult to talk of an international effort.  There has been conflict between the British and Americans, the main external agents. You’ve had enormous divisions within the Americans themselves between the military, USAID, and the Drugs Enforcement Administration. They have not seen opium in the same way.

NARRATOR: Pain says the US military has been willing to support opium producers in achieving military objectives.

PAIN: The US military has been working with key traders in narcotics as part of the military effort, which is contradictory to any sort of counter narcotics and interdiction efforts. There’s been this muddle in terms of what are the priorities and what are the goals.

NARRATOR: For the past decade, Afghan governmental and international counter narcotics efforts have focused on eradication.  Eradication is the physical destruction of poppy plants by government forces.  Paul Fishstein, agricultural expert and Harvard University Belfer Center Fellow, says that the biggest drawback is simply its inconsistent and politicized application.

FISHSTEIN: So it becomes a political issue where eradicators will go out and eradicate opium, poppy that is either from either from people who are out of favor, or who otherwise don’t have the political clout to be able avoid eradication.

NARRATOR: Gretchen Peters, an investigative reporter with a decade of experience in Afghanistan, agrees and suggests that corruption plays a major part in the eradication program.

PETERS: And the problem with the program was that it was quite corrupt. And the local officials who were helping to decide which fields would get cut down, would be paid off by wealthy farmers, and they would end up destroying the fields of the poorest of the poor. This ended up driving hundreds of farm families into the arms of the insurgency.

NARRATOR: Eradication targeting the poor empowers the Taliban to create their own narrative of the counter narcotics efforts.  Fishstein illustrates the Taliban’s propaganda victory.

FISHSTEIN: And certainly there is ample evidence in a number of places that the Taliban have tried to capitalize on some of this by trying to portray themselves as the defenders of the local poor down trotted farmers. Look, the government is at the instigation of the international community, it is here to destroy your crop, but we will help you out, we stand for you morally and also physically,

NARRATOR: But why doesn’t the government simply eradicate the entire opium crop through a total airborne eradication program?  Fishtein explains the idea’s impracticality.

FISHSTEIN: The main concern or argument against that is again, the counter-reaction, that it provokes, I don’t know what the current estimate of opium’s contribution to the Afghan economy is, but at some point it was estimated to be up to a half, 40%, 30%. Certainly, if you look at the economic dislocations we’ve had in this country, if you imagine that instead of that we had taken in 20-40% hit on the economy, you can imagine the magnitude of the reaction.

NARRATOR: The other major counter narcotics effort is the development of alternative livelihoods.  This practice creates alternative and legal income sources for opium farmers.  Fishstein outlines the basis of the idea.

FISHSTEIN: I think my understanding, is that alternative livelihoods emerged as the kind of new generations of what started out maybe decades ago, of so called crop substitution. The idea that you would take one crop, that was has similar value to an illicit crop, and farmers would substitute one crop over the other.

NARRATOR: But these alternative livelihoods have often not been sustainable.  Joel Hafveinstein, a former USAID contractor, offers the example of the Afghan wheat crop, where foreign donors offered free inputs to boost profitability.

HAFVEINSTEIN: Its been used to create single season push in which lots of farmers are encouraged to produce wheat.  This is handing out lots of wheat seed and fertilizer even thoguh they know this wont have an effect beyond a single season.  When you dump large amounts of wheat seed into market you disrupt the input markets for profit, which is critical for the long term.

NARRATOR: This short sightedness, Fishtstein argues, is the result of not placing opium in its rural context.

FISHSTEIN: We also often treat it as a question lets substitute crops of similar value, you know the focus of whether crop x, whether it is saffron or cumin, can provide an alternative so there is a look for those simple solutions. But I think for the opium, you really have to look at the economy as a whole. You know opium is a very significant crop, but it is also part of an entire rural economy

NARRATOR: But Pain suggests that the concentration of development efforts in poppy producing provinces actually encourages provinces to cultivate.

PAIN: All sorts of perverse incentives have been given to instable provinces where opium is grown. By rewarding insecure and poppy growing areas with high development and intervention, you encourage cultivation.  And they have seen that.  The incentive is therefore for areas not growing it to move back in.

NARRATOR: Peters believes alternative livelihoods will need to be a part of any successful counter narcotics strategy, but with other support as well.

PETERS: It makes sense to have a more balanced strategy that focuses on public education, and alternative livelihoods, to try and help shift the communities and to be working and try to shift the community, and try to be the solution to get away from the drug trade. Instead of someone who is bring more pain and more economic trouble into their communities.

NARRATOR: Ultimately, Pain states, the opium economy should be understood as a result rather than a cause.

PAIN: Opium is a symptom of poverty, and of state failure.  You need to take a long view of this.  Think of Thailand, which had a much smaller drug problem, smaller opium cultivation and they took 20-25 years to remove it, basically by investing heavily in infrastructure and bringing people into state.  If it took that long for a relatively effective state you can imagine how long its going to take in Afghanistan.

NARRATOR: With this long view, Pain sums up the past decade of counter narcotic efforts.

PAIN: We’ve done the wrong things too quickly in the expectation there were quick solutions to this. There are not. The lasting solution is building an effective state that provides security and welfare.

NARRATOR: For War News Radio, I’m Alan Zhao.