Empty Promises in Afghanistan

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Combine the war on terror with the war on drugs and you’ve got the mess that is the current fight against poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. This past weekend, an Afghan tribal leader, Hajji Bashir Noorzai, was arrested in New York, accused of “building a multimillion-dollar heroin trade through an ‘un-holy’ alliance with the Taliban.” Federal agents claimed that the arrest was “part of a newly aggressive pursuit of narcotics dealers in Afghanistan.”

It’s good the U.S. has wised up to the fact that it’s difficult to break up terrorism networks without attacking their sources of funding. British and American officials have been coming up with strategies revolving around “extraditing big dealers to face trial in America, setting up well-trained swat teams and spraying the poppy fields.” The increased international pressure on President Hamid Karzai has led to a “jihad against opium.” Something appears to be working—the cultivation of opium poppies has apparently gone down by about one-third from last year. But what is working may simply be the short-term lull following threats and promises that are fast showing they don’t carry much clout.

For some reason, when illegal drugs are involved, an unfortunate inability to understand basic supply and demand arises in the international community. With $300 million in aid pledged to eradicating poppies in Afghanistan, but a mere $120 million earmarked for alternative livelihoods for Afghan farmers, it’s hard to see how Afghan farmers can even afford to stop growing poppies. Karzai himself has argued that foreign donors need to put massive amounts of money into the rural economy in order to prevent a resurge of poppy growth. The Economist cites a recent British study that has concluded that “it is not interdiction attempts that have encouraged farmers to abandon poppies. Rather, many farmers expect the government to reward them for giving up the crop.”

If these rewards are not forthcoming, it’s only a matter of time before farmers begin re-cultivating, or worse, a potential violent backlash emerges. The U.S., Britain, and other foreign donors should take note of the basic economics involved. It’s far too early to be optimistic about poppy growth in Afghanistan. As the Economist reminds us:

In the year before its demise, the Taliban regime banned opium cultivation, enforcing the prohibition by both bulling and bribing farmers with false promises. This pushed up prices—and therefore the value of the regime’s own stockpiles. With many dealers still at large, a similar manipulation may be under way.

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