Why the US Army Isn't Mass Spraying Afghanistan's Opium Crop

The Armchair Generalist, whose blog I like a great deal, wonders why, since much of the opium crop in Afghanistan is used to buy weapons for the bad guys, the US army keeps resisting going on mass crop sprawing operations?

The reason is that if they do that, the warlords and tribes will rise up en masse. This is how both farmers and those who take a share from the farmers make their living – there are no other cash crop worth bothering with in Afghanistan. So while opium funds a lot of the Taliban, the poblem is it also funds a lot of the US’s allies – the ground troops that actually fought most of the battles of the Afghanistan invasion. And it keeps a lot of farmers alive and with some pocket money.

The smartest way to deal with the opium problem would be to allow Afghani farmers to sell it legally to pharmaceutical companies – who, after all, need it for all the opiates sold legally around the world. If you have to make a living doing something illegal then they are required to associate with unsavory people. And once you start making deals with the mob, or the Taliban, it’s very hard to get out.

More After the Jump

Or hey, spray it all and try and smash down the uprising, if you can, then flood the country with billions of real economic aid – but that won’t happen, because no one is actually willing to pay what it would take.

The problem is the US army is caught in a trap – they feel they can’t say “look, spraying all the opium crops is stupid, because both ordinary people and our allies rely on that crop along with the Taliban”. They can’t say that because in the US drugs are “EVIL”, and have been treated as “EVIL” for the last thirty odd years, complete with hysterical and counterproductive “drug wars”. But they also know they can’t actually treat the opium crop like it’s “EVIL” because if they do, they’ll have an explosion on their hands.

And, as usual, the deeper problem is the refusal to deal with hard facts when they clash with a predertimined ideology.

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Ian Welsh

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  • The illegal drug trade, estimated by the UN at $2.7-billion per year and constituting more than one-third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, threatens to drive the country inexorably from a narco-economy to a narco-state. In the narco-state, power will have moved from elected leaders to drug lords and their Taliban allies. This will spell death for democracy.

    There is no disagreement about this. The disagreement has to do with the best means of solving the problem. The current policy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the United States seeks to destroy poppy crops and punish the farmers.

    The Senlis Council (in co-operation with specialists in opiates and their regulation, working at the Universities of Calgary and Toronto) offers an alternative aimed at legalized, regulated poppy production in Afghanistan to supply the developing world with needed painkillers.

    (By 2015, the World Health Organization estimates there will be 10 million cancer cases per year in the developing countries, in addition to the millions of cases of HIV/AIDS. The WHO describes the expected demand for opium-based medicines as a “world pain crisis.”)

    Traffic in morphine and codeine is licensed by the International Narcotics Control Board. The INCB points out that the richest nations (the United States, United Kingdom, France, Japan, Germany, Australia and Canada) consume nearly all of the world’s opiates, leaving 80 per cent of the globe’s population virtually without.

    Could opiates made from Afghan poppies make up the shortfall, if the INCB were to license growing there, as it does in France, India and Turkey? Undoubtedly. Meeting the global demand for pain medication has been estimated to require about double the current Afghan production. Maia Szalavitz, a senior fellow at Stats, a media watchdog group, has estimated the cost of buying the entire Afghan poppy crop at the current market price, set today by Afghan drug lords, as about $600-million — less than the $780-million the United States budgeted last year for eradication.

  • 1. How much poppy does the pharmaceutical industry need?

    2. Who are the extant legit poppy suppliers? How do they feel about competition?

    3. Is the transport infrastructure in place to move the harvested crop to medical refineries?

    4. What other roadblocks are there?

  • There would be some cognitive dissonance between legalizing the Afghan drug trade and the continued U.S. war in Columbia and Bolivia that is billed as the fight against drugs. Not that recognizing rank hypocrisy ever stopped the use of force, but doing anything that starts a discussion of the wisdom of drug eradication opens the way for some bad public relations.

  • …medical uses for cocaine are extremely limited (IIRC there are uses in cosmetic surgery, but that’s all that I can recall off the top of my head) where as the market for opiates is considerably larger (and likely smaller than modern medical practice suggests that it should be).

    “We declared war on terror, it’s not even a noun, so, good luck. After we defeat it, I’m sure we’ll take on that bastard ennui.” – Jon Stewart.

  • There is another component to this particular puzzle and it involves the fact that a good portion of the opium from Afghanistan passes through Russia where it helps support a not insignificant part of the Russian General Staff. There was a long article on this – I am not in a place where I can do research but I’m sure someone can easily find it.

    There would apparently be not inconsiderable disruption in the Russian military were we to stop the illegal trade which they would undoubtedly be inclined to take out on us either through support of Afghan insurgents who may not like the Russians but would be happy to take whatever help they can get against us or some other nefarious way.

  • Not surprisingly, few people factor in the world-wide drug black market into the events of what’s going down in the so-called “War on Terror”, whether it’s rogue(?) CIA sponsered cocaine coming into Jeb Bush’s black-hole of organized crime ridden Florida or the resurgance of the opium trade after the “failed” erradication of the Taliban in Afghanistan. That the global “illegal” drug trade funds not only American, but Russian black operations is well documented history. Legally growing opium poppies on such a large scale would have to be subjected to stringent auditing, which of course, just would not be allowed to happen; to think otherwise is naive. Too many people in political power make too much money from illegal activities such as the drug and arms and sex trade as we well know when occasionally their activities come to light.

    It escapes most Americans that their military does not exist to keep them or their country safe; it is merely a tool of the corporate government to protect it’s overseas assets… whether they be the oil-fields or the poppy fields.

  • depose a leader we don’t like, start a civil war, trash the countryside and completely ignore a worldwide outcry of “bad PR,” but we can’t just go carpetbomb the coca fields.

    What’s wrong with this picture?

    “Lord! What fools these Mortals be!”

  • I have been thinking about the controls. India grows a lot of opium for the legal market. There are controls and India is a relatively stable country and its people are used to dealing with a more or less functioning bureaucracy. There is some cheating and corruption but apparently on a macro basis the system works well enough.

    Afghanistan is a whole different kettle of fish. There’s no meaningful central government and huge security problems in the hinterlands. Even if a market based approach was attempted where the good guys, with unlimited resources, outbid the bad guys for product, the bad guys, who are not subject to any restraints, would probably simply kill off any farmers who cooperated in the interruption of their supply chain.

  • If the Taliban are all powerful we might as well leave now.

    In fact, if we outbid the Taliban and the Taliban started doing that (which they would) then people would hate the Taliban for doing it, and we would have a lot more informers and good will.

  • Anyway the concept seems to be viewed as a non-starter by those who would have to implement it:

    The United Nations drugs chief said Afghanistan had not received as much economic aid per head of population as other post-conflict areas and greater efforts were needed.

    “It is not only a question of more money. Aid money gets stuck due to bureaucratic delays. Some is misused, or even stolen, by incompetent intermediaries and corrupt administrators. International aid is plagued by huge overhead costs. Add the arrogant power of the warlords turned drug-lords and you understand why people’s confidence in the government and in the international community is being undermined,” he added.

    The Afghan Government, the Parliament and partner nations have made it clear that legalizing cultivation or buying up the opium crop for medical purposes is not an option under current circumstances. The price differential between the legal market, where opium costs about $20-30 per kilo, and the illegal one, where the price is $100, would lead to even greater cultivation and the massive diversion of supplies to the black market.

    The UNODC Executive Director also called on western governments to do more to curb drug abuse in their countries, not least in order to protect the health and safety of their own people. “Heroin habits in the West put huge sums of money into the pockets of criminals and insurgents who destabilize Afghanistan and kill soldiers and civilians alike,” he said.

  • Oh please, the West isn’t going to start using less opium – legally or illegally. And as noted, there’s a shortage coming up anyway. And you raise the price to $110. Who cares if it costs more than other supplies? That’s not why you’re doing it.

    Of course the idea is viewed as a non starter. Winning the war is also regarded as a non starter. Immediate unilateral withdrawal from Iraq is a non starter, but it’s the right thing to do. Universal health care in the US is a non starter, but it’s the right thing to do. Talking to Iran and Syria is a non starter, but it’s a right thing to do.

    Doing the right thing is a non-starter for practically everything these days.

  • Cocaine is a very good local anasthetic. The ‘caine anasthetics that are popular in dentistry are cocaine analogues. It’s apparently still in use for that and as a vasoconstrictor in Europe.

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