“Is Afghanistan A Narco-State?”

July 24, 2008

So asks Thomas Schweich, for years the lead US official on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, and answers not so favorably for either the US or the Afghan governments. As close to the horse’s mouth as you would get it on CN policy. A definite must-read for those interested in the subject, and a piece that is sure to raise eyebrows -or hell- both in DC and Kabul.

Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?
(New York Times Magazine)


Of poppies and poverties ii

January 29, 2008

One of the talk shows on Tolo TV last night featured an in-depth discussion on counter ‎narcotics with a senior advisor of the ministry of counter narcotics (MCN). The ‎discussion partly touched on the debate that has been raging in some corners of the web ‎and here on this blog (although here it has been less than raging; it has actually been a ‎one-person shouting fest) –that is, the link between poppy and poverty. ‎

The senior advisor made an important distinction that I was glad to hear and I would be ‎remiss to not report, because it is in part an invitation to moderation on a topic that is ‎becoming increasingly ideological and polarized -polarized between those on the one ‎hand who believe that there is a direct and clear two-way lane between poppy cultivation ‎and poverty, and those on the other hand who tend to dissociate the two. ‎

And the distinction that the MCN official made was this: that yes, there are those farmers ‎who are driven to poppy cultivation primarily because of poverty, and because in the ‎absence of any off-farm income opportunities and small land-holding, the only rational, ‎economic choice that they can make is to get the most bank for the buck and grow poppy ‎on their meager one or two jeribs. This is the extent to which the link between poppy and ‎poverty holds. ‎
But this is not the whole story –no sir, not nearly. ‎
There are also those, the MCN official stated, that own vast tracts of land and are well to ‎do, and would be still well off if they grew all of those fields cotton or wheat, but still ‎grow poppy. These are the greedy ones –the ones that you can fly over their fields in a ‎helicopter, the MCN official said, and for as far as the eye can see it is a sea of pink ‎poppy flowers and slit poppy pods. These are the ones that can actually buy 160 ‎Sarachas. These are the ones whose aide and support to the Taliban is substantial, and ‎who live in a symbiotic relationship with the insurgency. ‎

These are the ones for whom I can’t stand anyone shed any tears on account of their ‎destituteness and their poverty. And I would argue that these are the ones who are ‎responsible for the bulk of that 92% heroin that Afghanistan contributes to the world ‎market. Here the link is not between poppy and poverty. Rather it is between greed, ‎poppy, terrorism, and the Taliban –and eventually Afghanistan’s downfall. ‎

And as long as there are these kinds of mega-poppy-farmers on the one hand, and ‎evidence of widespread poverty amid helpless farmers across Afghanistan (whether they ‎grow poppy or wheat or rice or barley in their lowly few hectares), to insist that poppy is ‎a direct outcome of only poverty is simply disingenuous and misleading, and it does not ‎help Afghanistan. ‎

Of poppies and poverties

January 26, 2008

There seems to be a flurry of exchanges and posts and calls ahead of the next JCMB meeting in Tokyo (with counter-narcotics dominating the agenda) to prove that the ‎poor farmers in Hilmand are driven to poppy cultivation by poverty, and those who have ‎it so well in the north, center and elsewhere don’t really have to grow poppy. Case in point, the latest posts on ICGA Blog by the political scientist and ‘super-academic’ Barnett R. Rubin. The cynic in me always manages to be alarmed by such heightened activity just as many a predator in the wild would by sudden movements. So here it goes…

First, all this talk about poverty and poppy just makes me think of ‎a common anecdote in the south that someone recently related to me that goes something ‎like this: Upon being asked how much he earned from his opium crops the previous year, ‎an illiterate Hilmand farmer said, after a long pause: “I dunno the rest of it but I know ‎that I bought 160 Sarachas among other things…” (Saracha is the name in Afghanistan of ‎a station-wagon like vehicle commonly used for passenger transport and as taxicab)

Now ‎this may well be an exaggerated number, not least because who in the world needs 160 ‎vehicles unless they want to open a full fleet limousine service for the drug barons of the south, but it goes to show the extent in the popular imagination of the wealth associated ‎with narcotics. And not to say that all farmers have an equal access to that wealth, in fact ‎I agree that the farmers get the smallest of the dividends from opium cultivation, but the ‎externalities from opium cultivation, and the ripple effects and the multiplier effects (on ‎consumption, for instance) of the opium wealth cannot but have an impact on the overall ‎welfare of the residents of Hilmand.

I agree with Mr. Rubin that UNODC is wrong if it ‎says that poverty does not have anything to do with poppy cultivation – but UNODC has ‎never said such a thing. In fact, what they have said could be interpreted more closely to ‎mean that poverty is no more primarily associated with poppy cultivation in Hilmand –‎the province that produces more drugs than the rest of the world put together, including ‎all of Afghanistan’s provinces with the exception of Hilmand itself- and that is an ‎assertion that I am comfortable with, especially if it is backed up with evidence from the ‎field and research, as UNODC claims it to be. Of course nobody, not Mr. Rubin, not the ‎UNODC is claiming that poverty is the only driver of opium cultivation, and neither is anyone saying that poverty is not a factor in poppy cultivation at all. I think nobody can make such over-‎generalized assertions with certainty and authority about any social and economic ‎phenomenon anywhere, not least in the muddle and shady enterprise that is the poppy ‎world of Afghanistan. ‎

By the way, none of this is to support eradication-only policies or to negate the importance of ‎building alternative livelihoods in order to wean farmers in the south off opium. It is just another ‎voice calling for moderation on both sides, on part of those who have taken it upon ‎themselves to defend the honest, poor, and never greedy poppy farmers of Hilmand (and ‎where does this motto come from: “greed is good” and that it is part of the human nature, ‎and that those idiot Marxists failed because they neglected this simple fact of the human nature?), and those on the ‎other side who are allegedly insisting that poppy and poverty are not related at all.

The danger in trying to associate poppy primarily with poverty in the south is to give the wrong impression that because poppy cultivation is largely a southern problem, then by logical inference poverty must also be a major problem only in the south, unlike those other provinces that are relatively or completely poppy free, and hence better off. That would have tragic policy implications in a land already mired by social justice issues and with just about everybody crying out foul over the way aid money and development budget is allocated by provinces.

By the same token, of course it would be wrong to completely dissociate poppy from poverty -that would in effect turn on its head the difficultly-achieved consensus on the importance of alternative livelihoods.

Let’s just say that poppy and poverty and politics are somehow linked together and that the Raison d’être of this sinister ménage à trois has to do with more than the simple fact they all share the beginning two letters of their names in the English language -and leave it at that. I for the life of me can’t seem to get my head around the many nuances of it, or the fact that the problem that everyone is trying to address seems to be growing exponentially as the years go by, and as more money is spent on putting an end to it.

There ‎you have it, my lowly two cents added to the billion dollar argument about a multi-billion ‎dollar industry.

From Afghanistan With Love #1: Baba-i Za’faran

September 24, 2007

Babay Za’faran

Originally uploaded by From Afghanistan With Loveّ

This man used to be a big-time Opium poppy growing farmer in Pushtoon-Zarghoon district of Herat. Then he shifted to growing saffron, and has since devoted himself to helping other farmers do the same.
For his services, he has been officially dubbed “Baba-i Za’faran” or “Father of Saffron” by the Ministery of Agriculture – he even showed me the certificate.
Besides showing Afghans’ obsession with bestowing the honorific “Daddy of this or that” on old (or dead) men, in this case, the deserved title is a fitting tribute to a wise old man.


August 8, 2007

US Funded Projects

This map leaves little room for doubt as to the “insurgency premium” reaped by the trouble(d) spots of the country. (Map taken from a guest post by Ambassador Thomas Schweich, Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), US Department of State on CSIS PCR Project blog.)

Rory Stewart has got it right when he says in his new column that:

Projects in hostile areas, where the local population is not working with us and where a minority wants to attack us, are not a constructive use of our limited resources.

The column goes on to advocate for a peace and cooperation premium in areas hitherto neglected and unreconstructed:

We can do much more to show people the benefit of cooperating with the coalition… Our best hope is rather to focus on the many secure and welcoming parts of Afghanistan’s center and north. Efforts to jumpstart local economies led by members of those communities are more effective, more relevant and more sustainable than those dictated by outsiders. We have a great opportunity in the north, center and west of Afghanistan to lead development projects for which Afghans will still be grateful 50 years from now.


In other news, after an unannounced and inexcusable hiatus of almost two months to date, Safrang is back online – with the added benefit of now being posted live from the heat of the moment and the belly of the beast. Step aside Geraldo!

All ye thirsty beneficiaries of this infinite stream of wisdom rejoice!

Jabbar Sabit and the “Airport Mystery”

April 11, 2007

Attorney General Sabit in his office - courtesy of Skyreporter

Some time back this blog gave a ringing endorsement of Afghanistan’s Attorney General Abdul Jabbar Sabit and the job he was doing as the country’s anti-corruption czar. (see Fighting the Good Fight…)
In fact, carried away by the relative success of his methods (albeit rather extreme, but then again we are talking about Afghanistan where corruption has also hit extreme levels) the post likened him to the crusading NY Attorney General Elliot Spitzer.

Well, these are not good days to be an Attorney General anywhere.

In a revealing bit of investigative journalism, and against numerous and powerful obstacles (including high officials from a myriad of governments) SkyReporter’s Arthur Kent goes behind the scenes to ask some tough questions about Attorney General Sabit, his background as a key Hekmatyar ally, his recent decision to fire the head of Kabul Airport security, and his potential entanglement in a drug trafficking scandal.

While our endorsement of Jabbar Sabit stands as far as his much needed “jihad” against anti-corruption is concerned, for a balancing view read/watch SkyReporter’s Oh Canada! , True North , and Afghan Heroin Series.

Here are some excerpts:

…The scandal of heroin trafficking at Kabul Airport is a perfect example. As I’ve pieced the story together, it’s been remarkable how obstacle after obstacle looms on the horizon. Mysteriously, most of these investigative roadblocks aren’t thrown up by the drug gangs, but by the authorities. Not just by shadowy figures at the top of Hamid Karzai’s Afghan government, but by American and British officials, too….

Canadian officials are evading questions about the man at the centre of the Kabul Airport heroin trafficking scandal, Afghan Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabet, who is also a resident of Montreal…

Last autumn Sabet suspended Amerkel from his post as police chief of Kabul Airport. Several law enforcement sources in the capital confirm that the flow of smuggled heroin increased after Amerkhel’s removal. (Please see the AFGHAN HEROIN series of film reports at skyreporter.com)

President Karzai’s shadowy, accident-prone Attorney General continues to wreak controversy with botched investigations, with alleged criminality by at least one of his senior appointees, and with his own failure to take on top-level abuses of power.


Colombia as Model for Afghanistan?

January 23, 2007

General Peter Pace thinks so:

The United States’ top military official said Friday that American-backed anti-drug and counterinsurgent operations in Colombia – the world’s largest producer of cocaine – could serve as a template for Afghan efforts to fight drug production. (continue)

And he is not alone by a far shot. The re-assignment of William Braucher (former US ambassador to Colombia) to Kabul confirms that the ideological -and disastrous- “War on Drugs” model is indeed the next thing for Afghanistan. For years now groups inside Afghanistan, in the civil society, and among the more precient of Afghanistan observers have warned against Colombia-style eradication efforts in Afghanistan. The argument has been made that in the absence of mechanisms of alternative livelihood -and enough time to allow for an effective transition- any eradication efforts, no matter how massive, will run aground in the face of simple laws of economics.

Unless people -as rational agents with calculated self-interest- are not convinced of the fact that cultivating crops such as wheat or saffron are equally or more profitable than growing opium poppies, they will keep on growing poppies. With time, as eradication makes it costly for some to cultivate poppies, at the same time it increases the margin of profit for others who will continue to take the risks and cultivate it. And then with some more time, those people will find ways to arm their militias (Taliban for FARC) to protect their investments.

Let’s face it: the whole war-on-blank metaphor has proved disastrous, and Afghanistan is still a little better off stuck with the war-on-terror part of it to afford another war-on-drugs at the same time. The war-on-blank mindset is uncompromising, idealistic, and impractical – and serious policymaking is anything but these: it is pragmatic, settles for setbacks, and admits mistakes and adjusts course accordingly.