But first, a few events that haven't gotten much coverage, what with Obama's low bowling scores and all:
Militants launched two attacks against Afghanistan's vulnerable police, killing eight officers, including four who were destroying a field of , officials said Sunday.There are a lot of such reports these days. In most such reports the "militants" are identified as "Taliban." In many of these areas, the local population is reported to be hostile to the government, and the "Taliban" are said to have reinfiltrated in preparation for their yearly offensive. The tempo of attacks is already significantly above last year's. I wonder if there is any connection....
Kandahar provincial police chief Sayed Agha Saqib said the militants killed four eradication police in the province's Maiwand district on Saturday. The attack is at least the third time militants have targeted such teams in the last several weeks and comes one week after fighters killed seven officers who were eradicating poppies.
Saqib has said police would increase the teams' protection. Around 100 officers on the country's poppy eradication force were killed in the line of duty over the last year, the Interior Ministry has said.
Harjit Sajjan, a police detective from Vancouver, British Columbia, served in military intelligence with the Canadian Land Forces in Kandahar. His work with the local population was key to halting the Taliban offensive in the summer of 2006. Detective (Major-Reserves) Sajjan wrote me a note about his observations, which also appears as an appendix in our report. In his frontline experience, "The current eradication program is pushing the farmers to the Taliban," because "eradication impacts the farmers who are trying to feed their families."
A U.S. official with responsibility for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan wrote me to share his opinion that our report was "So inaccurate as to border on dishonest." A senior international official with lengthy experience in Afghanistan and many other war-torn countries (including his own) found the report to be "better than anything ever written on the subject by UNODC or anyone else." UNODC has responded to arguments made by us and other critics. I have also been involved in a number of private exchanges on these matters.
The experience has been quite frustrating. I am sure that I am wrong about some things. I would welcome debate on the points that we raised. But instead the responses have consisted of combinations of: creating easy targets ("straw men") by distorting arguments in our report and elsewhere into ridiculous caricatures, and then refuting these distortions; repeating dogmatic formulae without engaging or acknowledging the arguments against the way that these dogmatic formulae are being applied; and changing the subject by asserting obvious facts as if these facts refuted other arguments. Examples:
1. Refuting distortions: We and other critics argue that crop eradication in insecure areas disproportionately hurts the poorest people involved in the opium economy, because the sharecroppers and laborers in insecure and isolated areas have the fewest alternatives. UNODC responds that "poverty does not appear to have been the main driving factor in the expansion of opium poppy cultivation in recent years," which is a valid response to a claim no one has made. The US government responds to the "myth" that "Afghan poppy is only grown by poor farmers" (another claim no one has made), arguing that "In the South, where most of the poppy is now grown, cultivation is organized by wealthy traffickers and big landowners who plant poppy because of high profits and the absence of law enforcement in insecure areas." The opium economy is controlled by rich people who are seeking profit! Imagine that!
The US and UK claim that they "are helping the Afghan Government to target eradication at the wealthy, not the poor" (I can't link to this source). Besides the ludicrous idea that the US and UK have better information on land tenure in rural Afghanistan than the Afghan government (see this), I have yet to receive an explanation, even in response to direct questions, of how the US and UK intend to target rich landowners without targeting their poor sharecroppers and laborers. I'm still waiting. UNODC and the two governments nowhere in their recent arguments acknowledge the existence of sharecroppers and laborers. I shall come back to how they use sloppy language to disguise sloppy thought, with potentially the same disastrous results that George Orwell warned about in "Politics and the English Language" (the points apply to any language, not just English).
2. Dogmatic formulae: we argue that eradication should be used only in secure areas where licit livelihoods are available and communities have confidence in them (which by the way, is the official policy of the Afghan government, which the US and UK have overruled with their pressure tactics). A recent report by UNODC demonstrates that alternative livelihood programs reduce poppy cultivation only in secure areas; it stands to reason that the same is true of eradication. Security is what we social scientists call a"contextual variable." Where life is relatively secure and government can operate, alternative livelihood programs lead communities to reduce poppy cultivation, and (a reasonable hypothesis) a credible threat of eradication does likewise. Where there is little or no security, however, alternative livelihood programs are used for corruption or to improve the yield of illicit crops (as in Helmand), and eradication leads communities to support the insurgents. Hence security -- above all a political issue -- must come first.
Rather than engage this argument, the US and UK respond with the dogma that "Virtually every successful anti-opium campaign in history has required a downside risk to deter poppy cultivation at the level of the individual farmer, and eradication is just one risk factor among many." If either government has an answer to our arguments about the sequencing and contextual requirements for eradication to succeed, I have yet to hear it. The fact that "some" downside risk is necessary provides no evidence that any and all downside risk is effective. Evidence (which we cite) indicates that the downside risk created by the current policy of eradication in insecure areas drives communities to turn against the government rather than to move out of the drug economy. I would welcome a genuine argument against this evidence, if there is one.
3. Changing the subject: We argue, and the US and UK governments claim to agree, that the principal target of counter-narcotics policy in a situation that combines counter-insurgency in some areas and peace building in others is narcotics profit that funds insurgency and corruption. All evidence indicates that traffickers and their political-military protectors, not rural communities engaging in cultivation, receive 70-80 percent of the gross profits of narcotics in Afghanistan. We also argue that crop eradication has no effect or a harmful effect on curbing narcotics profits, by moving cultivation around, raising the price of raw opium, and driving traffickers to seek profit higher on the value chain (as they have done). We also argue that it is futile to try to de-fund the Taliban and al-Qaida through counter-narcotics policies, because they have alternative sources of funding. The US-UK response?
The opium trade and the insurgency are closely related. Poppy cultivation and insurgent violence are correlated geographically, and opium now provides the Taliban with a portion of its revenues.
This might seem a little wonky... and thoroughly analytical. When I started posting on this blog, I warned readers that I was a senior research scientist. But there is a very important political point: UNODC and the US Government use what Orwell called a "mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence" to create prose that "consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse." A mass of words "falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details." To defend the indefensible, "political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness."
I shall illustrate with the example from UNODC's 2007 Afghanistan Opium Survey that I cited in my original letter to Mr. Costa:
First, opium cultivation in Afghanistan is no longer associated with poverty – quite the opposite. Hilmand, Kandahar and three other opium-producing provinces in the south are the richest and most fertile, in the past the breadbasket of the nation and a main source of earnings. They have now opted for illicit opium on an unprecedented scale (5,744 tons), while the much poorer northern region is abandoning the poppy crops.Quite a target-rich environment. (If UNODC is like other organizations with which I have experience, politicos in the front office wrote these paragraphs, not researchers, who might be embarrassed by them.) Both paragraphs start with sentences using extremely vague verbs in the passive voice, as if UNODC were using Orwell as a source of negative inspiration. Opium cultivation "is no longer associated" with poverty. Opium cultivation "is now closely linked" to insurgency. There are no human beings in these sentences, just abstractions that might be linked or associated to each other. Taken on their own terms, such sloppy assertions mean very little. But these statements cannot be taken on their own terms: UNODC's leadership is making these assertions as interventions in a political struggle over Afghanistan.
Second, opium cultivation in Afghanistan is now closely linked to insurgency. The Taliban today control vast swathes of land in Hilmand, Kandahar and along the Pakistani border. By preventing national authorities and international agencies from working, insurgents have allowed greed and corruption to turn orchards, wheat and vegetable fields into poppy fields.
UNODC has produced a whole "discussion paper" about whether "poverty" is the "main driver" of opium cultivation. Not surprisingly, UNODC finds that both rich and poor participate in Afghanistan's largest industry. Only a UN Agency could think this finding worthy of reporting. But the argument over poverty and opium cultivation has nothing to do with such banal truisms.
UNODC never identifies who is making these decisions about poppy cultivation:
Hilmand, Kandahar and three other opium-producing provinces in the south have now opted for illicit opium on an unprecedented scale (5,744 tons), while the much poorer northern region is abandoning the poppy crops.Apparently in southern Afghanistan provinces make decisions about opium cultivation, whereas in the north the entire region decides together. And these "rich" southern provinces (though the three "other" ones are actually much poorer than most of the north) have made the wrong decision, while the poor but virtuous North has made the right one.
[Update: This just in from the field:
10 Apr, Balkh Province, Balkh District, Kata Khel Village – One person was arrested for the possessions of narcotics and weapons. Eighty two kilograms of Opium, a shotgun and an AK-47 was seized from them.Balkh is the poster child for "poppy-free" provinces.]
First, the argument about the relationship of poverty to the drug economy refers to the poverty of the entire country of Afghanistan, not just relative poverty within Afghanistan. Afghanistan is tied for last place in human development and security indicators as the poorest country and most insecure in the world along with a handful of African countries. It has been ravaged by thirty years of war that destroyed physical, human, and social capital, in which the opium economy was a survival strategy from which some profited handsomely.
Second, though rich and poor both profit from the drug economy (and, tautologically enough, the rich profit more), the poor are the most dependent on the drug economy for survival, especially in insecure areas. Therefore forced eradication in the so-called "rich" province of Helmand, where average incomes are $1 per person per day, disproportionately hurts the poor. That the poppy may be grown on land owned by the relatively wealthy has no bearing except as magician's business drawing attention away from the actual trick being performed. The main point is not care for the least among us (though I confess a certain such concern), but that eradication in insecure areas drives the poor (the vast majority) to seek protection from the insurgents (see opening of this post). But these actual people, their motives, alternatives, and choices, do not exist in the UNODC language fog.
The second paragraph is worse. I already noted that by itself a correlation of insurgency or insecurity with poppy cultivation cannot explain anything or argue for any policy. That depends on how policy interventions affect the choices of human beings. But in UNODC's language there aren't any human beings! Just "insurgents," who "have allowed greed and corruption to turn orchards, wheat and vegetable fields into poppy fields." Thus UNODC technically avoids saying that the Pashtuns of southern Afghanistan, unlike the virtuous other ethnic groups of northern Afghanistan are greedy and corrupt. (Nonetheless, this is what some Afghans understand them to be saying, and is another reason that this approach is highly irresponsible.) Apparently "Greed" and "Corruption" are political and economic actors in southern Afghanistan, and they must be struck down by "Counter-Narcotics" and "Counter-Insurgency," as if Pilgrim's Progress had come to Afghanistan.
This language situates us in a metaphorical world of abstraction, rather than the real world of violent struggle among some of the world's poorest and most traumatized people. We are engaged in an apocalyptic struggle with Greed, Corruption, and even, dare I say... Evil! How can anyone oppose measures against Greed and Corruption? Thus by conveniently removing the Afghans from Afghanistan, UNODC and the governments that fund it justify carrying out counter-narcotics policies driven by ideology and bureaucratic interest against the interest not only of Afghans but of all those who wish to see a secure and stable Afghanistan.
It is interesting to compare the World Bank's rhetoric with UNODC's. I imagine that it would not be difficult to find World Bank writings that could be similarly criticized as using vague language to disguise human realities. But here is the World Bank's main recommendation about the opium economy in Afghanistan:
Today, production is increasingly concentrated in five southern provinces where the security situation is most acute. This makes it vital that alternatives to opium address the problems of these vulnerable rural farmers by supporting their access to land, credit, food security, and sustainable economic livelihoods.Here is how the World Bank summarizes the "Narcotics Challenge" in Afghanistan:
Afghanistan is a desperately poor, war-ravaged country. The usual challenges ofThis prescription is based on study of and dialogue with the actual human beings involved:
post-war reconstruction are made even more difficult by the continuing insurgency, by the age-old centrifugal forces that have always made Afghanistan hard to govern, by the extreme weakness of modern institutions, and by widespread corruption and lack of rule of law.
In the last two decades, Afghanistan has become the world’s predominant supplier of
illicit opiates, accounting for over 90% of world production and trade. Total gross revenues from the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan are equivalent to over one-third of licit GDP. Millions of Afghans benefit directly or indirectly from the opium economy.
The government’s strategy, with global backing, is to fight drug trafficking and to
progressively reduce opium production over time. Where farmers are better off and clearly have viable alternatives, law enforcement measures can be taken. Where farmers are poor, or where landless labourers are involved, government policy is to develop viable alternatives for the rural poor, and only then [my emphasis -BRR] use sterner measures to enforce a ban on opium poppy cultivation.
Afghans engaged in opium production can be broadly categorized in four types:Some U.S. officials dismiss these findings like a Republican School Board considering the teaching of evolution. They claim it is all nonsense, and harsh measures are needed because we are in a war. Orwell noted:
1. Better-off farmers who are not dependent on opium. The exit of these farmers from the opium economy is largely a function of security and governance, and of legal market opportunities.
2. Smaller farmers currently dependent on opium but with some potential for producing for legal markets. Where there are good markets for legal crops and livestock, and provided that a modicum of security and good governance are present, these farmers may be expected to shift away from opium in the medium term
3. Poor farmers in remote areas currently highly dependent on opium, with little potential to produce for the market and scant local labour opportunities. Over the longer term, these farmers can move away from opium if value can be added to local on-farm and off-farm production and to labour. Out-migration is likely to play a significant role for this group.
4. The landless, currently highly dependent on providing labour for opium production
(through wage labour or sharecropping). Adding value to labour, developing employment opportunities, and facilitating orderly migration are exit paths for this category over the longer term.
Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.The real argument in this case is that the struggle against terrorism takes priority over the welfare (or lives) of poor Afghan farmers. That is not an empirical proposition but a political one -- but one that those in power prefer not to articulate. On strictly empirical grounds, this political position is self-defeating. Without gaining the support of the poor majority of Afghanistan for a government integrated into the international system, we will never be able to secure the country and region against al-Qaida and its offshoots. In any case, as we have stated in arguments that have never been even acknowledged, let alone refuted, the existing policies will not reduce the funding of the Taliban and al-Qaida.
One more thing -- the great cannabis scam. In previous posts I pointed out the fallacy of calling northern Afghanistan "poppy free," just because the power-holders have moved up the value chain to trafficking and processing. They import the raw material from the south. But UNODC mentions an interesting fact in its 2008 Rapid Assessment Survey, though it strenuously abstains from drawing any conclusions from it or attributing it to the actions of Greed and Corruption:
Another disturbing trend is the steady rise in cannabis cultivation, giving Afghanistan the dubious distinction of being one of the world’s biggest suppliers of cannabis in addition to providing over 90% of the world’s illicit opium.And where is this cannabis grown? Substantial numbers of Afghan communities grow it in the main poppy producing provinces, but also in the "poppy-free" provinces of Paktya (50 percent of villages), Logar (33%), Sar-i Pul (33%), Baghlan (23%), and Balkh (22%). So the "poppy-free" provinces are not "narcotics-free." Their main alternative livelihood is not anything supplied by USAID, but another illegal narcotic! The US and UNODC conceal this fact through yet more deceptive use of language. In one sentence they are engaging in "counter-narcotics," and in the next they are succeeding because provinces are "poppy-free" (though they are full of cannabis plantations and drug traffickers). When reading any official pronouncements on this subject, look carefully to distingish among poppy, opium, heroin, trafficking, and narcotics. That will give you a better idea of the true landscape beneath the snowfall of verbiage.
To analyze Afghanistan's economic dependence on bad governance and insecurity, we need an estimate of the total value of the illicit or criminal economy in Afghanistan: opiate production and trafficking (not just poppy production -- UNODC provides such estimates, though policy makers generally ignore them), cannabis and hashish, methamphetamines (there are reports of start-up labs), and all the other forms of smuggling and looting (of gems, timber, state assets, land, and more) that make up the illicit sector. Then we need a carefully designed and politically feasible policy to promote security and legitimate rule, and, eventually, less bad governance. Word games about Poppy, Greed, and Corruption will not get us there, Pilgrim.