Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Points on Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan: A Critique and a Proposal (Updated)

In the first and second installments of this series (August 24 and 25), I took the release of the new “U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan” as the occasion to analyze the US approach. On August 27, the United NationsOffice on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its Afghan Opium Survey 2007 at a press conference in Kabul. The press release sounded the alarm at the record production this year. The report led with two major findings:

UNODC's 2007 Annual Opium Survey showed the area under opium cultivation rose to 193,000 hectares from 165,000 in 2006. The total opium harvest will be 8,200 tonnes, up from 6,100 tonnes last year. The amount of Afghan land used for growing opium is now larger than the combined total under coca cultivation in Latin America - Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. No other country has produced narcotics on such a deadly scale since China in the 19 th century.

In the centre and north of Afghanistan, where the government has increased its authority and presence, opium cultivation is diminishing. The number of opium-free provinces more than doubled from six to thirteen, while in the province of Balkh opium cultivation collapsed from 7,200 hectares last year to zero. However, the opposite trend was seen in southern Afghanistan. Some 80 percent of opium poppies were grown in a handful of provinces along the border with Pakistan, where instability is greatest. In the volatile province of Helmand, where the Taliban insurgency is concentrated, opium cultivation rose 48 percent to 102,770 hectares.
The report and press release repeat the misconception in the U.S. Strategy that provinces with little or no poppy cultivation are "opium-free." Elites in "opium-free" provinces continue to profit handsomely from drug trafficking. The UNODC report is a welcome complement to the U.S. Strategy in that it speaks frankly though mildly of the inadequacy of alternative livelihood programs and of development for those who do not grow poppy. The report accurately links poppy cultivation (though not drug trafficking) to insecurity. Like the U.S. Strategy, it calls for the full integration of counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics measures, especially in Helmand province, which has become "the world's biggest source of illicit drugs, surpassing the output of entire countries."

Some colleagues asked for my ideas on how to respond to what UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa called a "grim" but "not yet hopeless" situation. I drafted a brief (though probably not brief enough) memo giving my critique of current policy and making some prescriptions. This memo is not part of the series of four installments I am posting on Counter-Narcotics in Afghanistan. The first was entitled "Defining the Problem" and the second analyzed "The Value Chain, the Corruption Chain." A third essay will discuss sanctions against narcotics production and trafficking (eradication and interdiction), and the final will discuss incentives (alternative livelihoods) and strategic sequencing. This post is a summary of the overall policy conclusions I have reached. The four longer installments will provide the analysis on which I base the conclusions below.

The Situation, the Problem, the Tools, the Goal
  • According to UNODC estimates, cultivators receive only about 20% of the revenue from narcotics, and the drug money that really harms Afghanistan is the money that passes between trafficker/processors on the one side, and power holders on the other, including Taliban, Afghan government officials, and local/tribal leaders.
  • These links are just as strong in northern Afghanistan as in southern Afghanistan. Drug trafficking moves north across so-called opium-free provinces as well as south. Afghanistan has an integrated drug market. Security provided by the Afghan government and international forces makes cultivation more difficult in some areas and enables farmers to earn a living through other activities, but it does not restrict drug trafficking, which flourishes equally everywhere. Helmand province (which produces nearly half the opium in the world) and its neighbors are not a drug-producing enclave unconnected to opium-free provinces. They are now the main source of raw material for the country’s largest industry, which is national in scope. Enhanced eradication of the poppy crop in Helmand without adequate other measures will raise the farm-gate price of opium and create incentives for cultivation to migrate. Suppression of cultivation in Nangarhar in the East in 2004-2005 led to the increase of cultivation in northern Afghanistan.
  • Both globally and within Afghanistan, narcotics cultivation is the result of, not the cause, of insecurity. Costa emphasized the link between insecurity and narcotics production in releasing the Afghanistan Opium Assessment. The essential need for counter-narcotics policy is “a state that works” according to Colombian Deputy Minister of Defense Sergio Jaramillo. Therefore, as always, the core problem is security.
  • The core tools of counter-narcotics policy are crop eradication, interdiction (which is much more complex than arresting traffickers), and development (alternative livelihoods). All are necessary in a coordinated counter-narcotics policy, but they need not be simultaneous. A list of tools is not a strategy. They have to be sequenced to achieve the right outcome. It is not true, as U.S. government spokesmen routinely state, that all counter-narcotics successes combined all three simultaneously. In Thailand the government invested in development for ten years before introducing eradication. Since the people had confidence in the alternatives by then, they accepted eradication of what little cultivation was left.
  • The correct strategy for Afghanistan is to invest in development (not only rural) in all provinces, especially in the first instance in those areas that are not cultivating. Both US and UNODC spokesmen cite the figure that “only” 14 percent of the Afghan population is directly involved with poppy cultivation, but this grossly underestimates the economic dependence of the population on the drug economy, as most of the revenue comes from trafficking, processing, and protecting, not cultivation.
  • Simultaneously there must be a greatly enhanced interdiction effort. Interdiction does not mean only or even primarily seizing containers of narcotics from traffickers. It is above all political and must start at the top, with the removal of high officials benefiting from the trade. This means high officials and political leaders who receive contributions or bribes from traffickers even if they have no direct contact with trafficking. This problem has to be handled politically, as it is not possible to cope with a problem of this dimension mainly through law enforcement. The key is removing people from positions or sending them out of the country, not getting legal cases strong enough to try them in the US, which, though useful as a complement to the political effort, will take far too long.
  • The concept of integrating counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency by using some international military forces to assist in interdiction, including the destruction of heroin labs, is welcome and overdue. But the international forces must take extreme care during such actions not to cause civilian casualties, which have already become a serious issue in the country.
  • The proposal to enhance eradication immediately, especially in Helmand, is extremely dangerous for Afghanistan. It is likely to have the following results:
  1. The cultivators of Helmand, who do not believe that they currently have secure access to alternative livelihoods (no matter how much money has left Washington, D.C. with that alleged purpose), will resist the eradication by mobilizing their tribes and calling for help from anti-government elements. The fact that the average cultivator in Helmand may be somewhat better off than the average cultivator in some provinces without opium cultivation is irrelevant. The security situation in Helmand has prevented effective delivery of development aid, no matter how much money has been spent.
  2. The Taliban will be able to consolidate their hold on districts where enhanced eradication takes place, as the government and international forces will not be able to drive them out by military means against the opposition of the population without extensive civilian casualties.
  3. As a result, the government and international aid will not be able to enter those areas to engage in development programs or to collect intelligence for interdiction, and counter-narcotics will be reduced to eradication, i.e. an attack on the rural population. Security will deteriorate. The Taliban will gain much more stable control of base areas that are also narcotics producing areas, similar to what the FARC has in Colombia. As in Colombia, some of these base areas may cross borders, but with far worse effects in this case.
  4. As security deteriorates, NATO casualties will increase, especially British and Canadian casualties in Helmand and Qandahar. The U.K. has already stated its unwillingness to sacrifice its soldiers for a U.S. policy it believes is unwise. Both the NATO commitment to Afghanistan and NATO itself as an alliance would come under severe stress.
  5. If the eradication effort is successful in its own terms, then the farm-gate price of opium will rise throughout the country and beyond. The market is integrated,not segmented. Since people in Balkh and elsewhere in Northern Afghanistan also do not feel secure in their alternative livelihoods, and since, as UNODC noted, the delivery of aid to these areas has been insufficient and very slow, cultivation will return to Balkh, Ghor, and other areas where it has declined. Cultivation and trafficking will also move into the tribal areas of Pakistan and Baluchistan, where the money from these activities will strengthen the Pakistani Taliban and provide resources to thwart the democratization and stabilization of the country. Opium poppy cultivation, which has already started in Diwaniya province south of Baghdad, will spread to other areas of Iraq, and trafficking and processing will start to take off.
  6. As the government and NATO are distracted by a strengthened Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan,, they will have fewer resources for interdiction and will be less willing to take the political risk of confronting corrupt power holders in the government. Hence eradication will displace other counter-narcotics tools and the government will lose control of more territory.
  • An alternative is as follows:
  1. Launch a public information campaign stating that the purpose of counter-narcotics is not to attack but to enhance the livelihoods of the people of Afghanistan. Afghans cannot build a stable future on the basis of a criminal enterprise that is against Islam. But they also cannot build a stable future on empty stomachs. Therefore we must work together with the 98 percent of Afghan poppy cultivators (see UNODC report) who say that they are willing to abandon poppy cultivation if they can count on earning at least half as much from legal crops. Eradication is for the other 2 percent. But first the rural population has to have confidence in the alternative.
  2. Ask for voluntary restraint in planting while actually delivering (not just announcing or funding or launching) much larger alternative livelihood programs. These programs must go first of all to provinces that are not planting poppy or that are reducing it. Otherwise there will be perverse incentives. Second, they should go to poppy producing provinces.
  3. Alternative livelihood programs must provide all the services currently provided to farmers by drug traffickers: futures contracts, guaranteed marketing, financing, and technical assistance (extension services). Micro-finance must be made easily available so that poor farmers and regions can avail themselves of new opportunities. In the last year or two such programs have finally started, but it will take several years before they start to yield returns and people have confidence in them. Fruit trees, for instance, have to mature for several years before they give a yield. People will not stop planting poppy when they have planted fruit seedlings but have as yet no fruits or market access. Alternative livelihoods are available when Afghans believe they can rely on them, not when U.S. officials assert that money intended for alternative livelihood programs has left the U.S. Treasury.
  4. Delivering alternative livelihood programs without forcible eradication will make it easier for the government and international forces to gain access to areas from which the population has thus far excluded them.
  5. Simultaneously, the government, NATO, and Coalition should undertake enhanced interdiction efforts, as envisaged in the U.S. strategy. These should start with political measures at the top, consisting of removing high officials who receive narcotics money, even if their operational involvement with narcotics is distant. Intelligence assets should be directed to obtain this information. NATO and the Coalition should provide military support to attacks on smuggling convoys and heroin laboratories, with due regard for avoiding civilian casualties. The Ministry of the Interior must be reorganized (not just reformed) from top to bottom (in that order). As currently envisaged, precursor interdiction must be enhanced.
  6. According to analyses by both the World Bank and UNODC, interdiction efforts will lower the farm-gate price of opium, sending the right price signals to farmers and making alternatives more viable. It will reinforce containment of cultivation.
  7. There will be a period of transition for both farmers and traffickers. Just as we do not arrest everyone who committed a human rights violation in the past 30 years, we need measures for reconciliation and reintegration of both cultivators and traffickers who are willing to support the government, move out of their illicit occupations, and join the development process. Alternative livelihoods are not just for cultivators. Traders and traffickers have valuable experience in marketing cash crops and providing services to farmers. Those not affiliated ideologically or organizationally to the armed opposition should be retrained to link other agro-based export industries to the countryside.
  8. The major traffickers have residences outside of Afghanistan and should be arrested or made extremely unwelcome in those countries where they reside. As recommended by UNODC, UN Member States should "take full advantage of Security Council resolution 1735 by adding the names of a dozen drug traffickers to the United Nations Al Qaida/Taliban list in order to seize their assets, ban their travel and facilitate their extradition."
  9. We need a program to manage the transition. There is no comprehensive solution through legalizing the crop or buying back all of it. There may be a possibility to use a limited and strictly controlled buy back in areas that reduce production sustainably for 2-3 years as a transitional measure. Any buy-back must be accompanied by compensatory rewards for non-poppy growing areas. Anyone benefiting from a buy-back who then engages in cultivation should be subject to eradication.
  • Introducing enhanced eradication simultaneously with interdiction and alternative livelihood efforts will lead to a decrease in security and strengthen anti-government forces, while rendering interdiction and alternative livelihoods more difficult. The political purpose of counter-narcotics is to win the support of most of those involved with the drug economy by providing them with better security and links to markets than have drug traffickers, corrupt officials, and the Taliban. This does not require replacing every dollar, as the quality of licit income is much better. But it cannot mean trying to push Afghan farmers who are now used to commercial agriculture back to subsistence farming. It requires linking farmers to licit markets and agro-based industries.
  • The state in Afghanistan can be built only by using the limited force available in a highly targeted and economical way against hard core opponents, while greatly expanding the incentives (where international actors should have a decisive advantage) to win people over to the side of the government and its international supporters. Done the wrong way, counter-narcotics could do to this effort what land reform did to the communists; a good idea gone bad destroyed any hope of popular support. Counter-narcotics done properly is exactly what Afghans have been asking for: removing criminal power holders and bringing security and development.


Anonymous said...

Why not just buy the damned stuff direct from the farmers? We could buy it much cheaper than street value, and since middlemen would be eliminated the farmers could get more money than they get now. That would go a long way toward self-generated development.

What would we do with it? Why not refine it and use it in a Swiss-style addict maintenance program?

Barnett R. Rubin said...

I know it sounds simple, but it won't work. If you announce you will buy it at a good price, then everyone will plant it and nothing else. If you cap the amount you buy the rest will go to the illegal market, probably more than now. If you announce you will buy it but at a price that is less than the traffickers are offering, why should they sell it to you? How long do you do this for? This is an example of what economists call "moral hazard" -- the offer to buy whatever is produced at the current price changes the amount produced and the price. Global legalization or decriminalization would work to end the flow of illicit funds. The effect on drug use is contested. But so far even the Senlis Council recognizes now that you cannot solve the problem simply by licensing in Afghanistan. If the government had the capacity to license, it would also have the capacity to ban.

homeinkabul said...

Do you think there is enough (Afghan) political will for the corruption to be rooted out? That is a key part of the problem.

Anonymous said...

You cannot battle both the Taliban and drug production simulaneously, especially when both fights are disorganized and underfunded. Priorities!

The Prudent Investor said...

There was no balkan route for heroin before the US intervened in Kosovo. There was no heroin in Afghanistan before the US invaded. Coke production in Latin America is going through the roof despite the US efforts.
Why is it that the empire leaves/creates trails of drugs wherever they go?

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Anonymous said...

Legalization with licensing is certainly a legitimate option. You said that if the Afghan government had the power to license, they would have the power to ban. This isn't quite true. Asking a poor farmer to give up the crop that feeds his family and provides them with unrivaled spending cash is a dramatically different proposition than asking him to pay a reasonable tax on his production. This would have the added benefit of bringing a third of Afghanistan's economy into the the realm of taxation, providing a much needed revenue boost for the struggling government.

None of the measures mentioned in the article would actually act to remove the demand for heroine at market in Europe. Very basic economic principles tell us that the price offered to farmers will increase until enough farmers are willing to take the risk and grow illicit crops to meet that demand. Providing alternative livelihoods only works as long as the alternative provides a comparable income. So we have to somehow provide an alternative income that not only matches what farmers can make now, but will hold their interest when/if the supply starts to drop and farm gate prices skyrocket. The economic incentive to grow poppies will only be overcome when the street price can be raised to the point that European addicts will not or cannot pay for it, and farmers are still not willing to cultivate at that price. Considering that prices were five times higher than they are now in 2001-2002, it seems that the users of the world are willing to reach into their pockets to keep the opium flowing.

If a farmer can make ~50 times on poppy cultivation as he can on any other industry under current conditions, and the market will bear the sort of price increase of '01-'02, we face the interesting challenge of finding an alternative livelihood that is at least on the order of 250 times as lucrative as anything the rural peasants have been able to come up with. And this is assuming that that the price increase in '01 was on the brink of causing addicts to kick the habit.

Somehow, I think a market as strong as this one will find a way to get its product. If we continue to make "bad guys" out of those who meet the demand of such a market, we will be pushing a very lucrative opportunity into the hands of people who choose to be bad guys of their own accord.

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