Monday, October 29, 2007

The Devil's Poppy

Michael Yon reports that while things are improving in Iraq, Afghanistan has gone from a "near victory" to an uncertain standoff between NATO forces and an opium-fueled al-Qaeda/Taliban. The Afghan experience suggests that certain things do not lead, ipso facto, to victory. These include:

  • multinational involvement and political legitimacy. Unlike the reviled "War in Iraq", the campaign in Afghanistan has wide political support among European allies
  • the lack of adverse media coverage. Afghanistan has gotten a relatively soft ride from journalists
  • international development assistance. The presence of NGOs and development agencies has not directly led to stabilization

And then it's interesting to focus on the things which may of themselves, lend themselves to defeat.

The most important of those factors may include the lack of an easily exploitable mineral resource, like oil. The great thing about the presence of oil in Iraq is that guarantees a relatively high standard of living to the population the moment stability is restored. On the other hand, peace in resource-poor Afghanistan doesn't automatically translate to prosperity. It is in fact entirely possible that lawlessness and violence offer greater prospects for economic gain that ordinary labor. While conventional economic development may take decades, banditry and the drug trade promise direct and immediate money.

Is there any greater prospect of eliminating the al Qaeda/Taliban than destroying the drug fueled insurgencies of Latin America?

But the opium poppy probably poses considerable political dangers to al-Qaeda as well. If experience with terrorist tactics has tarnished the image of the Jihad in the Middle East, a prolonged exposure to the drug trade will sooner or later corrupt al-Qaeda itself. A study of the life-cycle of insurgencies and revolutionary movements shows that when they cannot achieve power or attain their political objectives, they often degenerate into banditry. Men who have known no other life than an armed existence in the underground find it hard to transition to peace. Exactions eventually become an end in themselves and the young Jihadis age the temptation to buy comfort eventually becomes irresistible. 



Blogger buck smith said...

So what is the easy counter to the problems in Afghanistan. Duh, legalize the drug trade which effectively confiscate the cash flow the bad guys control.

10/29/2007 06:54:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio said...

The drug trade is de facto legalized. Just take a look at the political inability (From American and Afghani officials) to implement any comprehensive aerial spraying program. This is because poppy represents the lifeline of the Afghan economy, and for better or for worse, it is their 'natural resource'. It sounds good to simply eradicate all poppy. This would result in the decimation of the economy (and al-qaeda's principle source of revenue and power). Keep in mind that both the 'bad guys'- Taliban and the 'good guys' - stabilizing elements with ties to Kabul, have a vested interest in preserving the poppy production.

10/29/2007 10:11:00 PM  
Blogger doolz said...

I agree with Buck. No Blood for Junk. Make opium a legal cash crop and cut out the Taliban middleman.

Rick Hillier (Canadian General, now in NATO) estimates we're going to need to be in Afghanistan for another 10 years in order to get their government and armed forces up to the challenge of maintaining their own defense.

We don't have the political will for that, we're taking more casualties there than we have in all other operations since the Korean War combined and most of the electorate are foggy on why we're there. I just don't see it happening, we need to turn this around before the end of the decade, one way or another.

10/30/2007 12:55:00 AM  
Blogger Wadeusaf said...

The folks who drew up the borders for the region way back when were not kind to either Pakistan or Afghanistan, land locking the former and giving little room for natural growth to the latter as far as Ports are concerned.

Pakistan and Afghanistan's western territories are rugged, under developed and border Iran. Three deep water ports serve Pakistan, the Western most Port at Gwandar is currently in the process of being developed. The first phase of which was completed by China in about 2005. It is a natural port for the disposition of most of the goods that could be of trade value from Afghanistan in the future.

Noting that even today the prices and extortion make good opium crops barley sustaining for the farmer, having the ability to move other goods cheaper would give Afghanistan's economy a boost it sorely needs. It would open the place up for the kinds of development that would make the growing of opium less tempting and the production of the kinds of legal goods that could provide a stable and sustainable economy more likely.

Squeezing the routes by which Opium leaves the country might be a better course of action in the short term, but that just squeezes the farmers from the other end, and still puts cash in the pockets of the powerful. The same case would follow if you made the stuff a legal cash crop. There is a solution to the problem, just not one readily available.

10/30/2007 04:01:00 AM  
Blogger Evan said...

The great thing about the presence of oil in Iraq is that guarantees a relatively high standard of living to the population the moment stability is restored. On the other hand, peace in resource-poor Afghanistan doesn't automatically translate to prosperity.

Actually, Iraq and Afghanistan (and Saudi Arabia, and Peru, and Nigeria, and...) are similarly situated. They are all victims of what economists call the natural resource curse. Some countries have most of their capital under the ground, some have most of it in people's minds. Countries with a lot of human capital know that their primary resource is mobile (Indian techies can go to Silicon Valley, nurses can move to the UK), so there are limits to how much the government can abuse them. (Some years ago Canada proposed to lower payments to physicians, and found that many of them moved south; taxpayer payments to doctors went back up.)

But when most of your resources are under or growing out of the ground - oil, diamonds, poppies, etc. - controlling the land from whence they come is key to making all the money. And so these economies tend to be plagued by corruption and violence.

It is not an ironclad rule - Australia is resource-rich, but well-governed. But research suggests that it matters a lot. And so Iraq, having so much oil, generates a lot of violence to control that resource flow. The House of Saud similarly has to spread around the oil money to all the princes and the mullahs to maintain stability. While Iraq may be improving, its oil-dominated economy is nonetheless more curse than blessing. (I argued awhile back that the Kurds would be better off ceding oil-rich Kirkuk and maintaining their rapidly growing, relatively oil-free economy.)

10/30/2007 06:39:00 AM  
Blogger Slade said...

What would happen to drug economies if we set up the year 2010 as a "free drug" year?

Using the tobacco companies (or some such) as authorized purchasers, and adding a 50% excise tax, and screw up a lot of drug economies...

January 2011 might be a bit wierd....


10/30/2007 05:35:00 PM  
Blogger Ignacio said...

The bottom line is that the Kurds have resources (in the form of an economy developing at a rapid pace) that are not from the earth, whereas Afghanistan does not. Unfortunately, with the security situation as it is nearly impossible for them to develop at the rate of relatively stable Kurdistan (until recently of course). This fundamental problem with the Afghani economy lies in the lack of economic diversity (based on a lack of trade conduits, which are in turn lacking due to the security situation).

10/30/2007 06:33:00 PM  

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