Wednesday, October 24, 2007

The Invisible Hand

The consensus among Afghan President Hamid Karzai, European diplomats, and the US military is that eradicating Afghan poppy crops through an aerial spraying campaign could very well provoke a serious backlash among peasant growers against both the Afghan government and NATO forces. So needless to say, the Bush administration is energetically lobbying Karzai to implement just such a crop-spraying program. And as The Times reported a few weeks ago, Karzai is beginning to crack.

Which ain't good. Here's what a new Army War College monograph has to say about the consequences of the manual crop-clearing eradication program to date:

The U.S.-backed opium poppy eradication efforts have not succeeded in reducing the production of opium and have, in many cases, been counterproductive. The aggressive pursuit of eradication has alienated many peasant farmers and resulted in some of them turning against U.S. and NATO forces. The Senlis Council, an international drug policy think tank, argues that the U.S.-backed eradication effort was "the single biggest reason many Afghans turned against the foreigners."...

...The Senlis Council argues that eradication not only ruins small farmers, but drives them into the arms of the Taliban, who offer loans, protection, and a chance to plant again. Instead of improving the quality of life for Afghan citizens, the U.S.-backed opium eradication efforts are instead alienating many Afghans, strengthening the Taliban, and increasing instability.

The spraying program will only make matters worse since it will very likely destroy food crops planted among the poppies, and can be used to stoke fears of American chemical attacks among a suggestible populace.

There's no disagreement about the scope of the problem. Since the overthrow of the Taliban, Afghan poppy production has flooded the world market, now supplying 92% of global illegal trade. The resulting windfall -- $3 billion (35% of Afghan GDP) in 2006 -- is increasingly funding the Taliban either directly or indirectly through protection rackets and payoffs. The legal market for opium-based medical products offers little solution, since it's too small to absorb the Afghan supply, offers only 20% of the illegal market price, and is already saturated anyway.

So here's a thought: Instead of lowballing growers with legal market rates, why not bid the price of the poppy harvest up by buying it from them at illegal rates? Black markets exist when profit and demand justify the risks involved in breaking the law. Raising the cost of the raw material will reduce profits, and the higher cost passed along to the end consumer will lower demand. It has the advantage of being a market-based solution. And it probably works out cheaper than the eradication program, aid packages and useless interdiction efforts combined.

Posted by Judah in:  Afghanistan   

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