Sanho Tree, writing below for the Transform blog, responds to the Guardian report last week that 'UN wants 'flood of drugs' in Afghanistan to devalue opium':
United Nations officials in Afghanistan are attempting to create a "flood of drugs" in the country intended to destroy the value of opium and force poppy farmers to switch to legal crops such as wheat.
After the failure to destroy fields of the scarlet flowers in Afghanistan's volatile south, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the answer is to stop the drugs from leaving the country in the first place.
"Manual eradication is incompetent and inefficient," UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa said during a visit to the western Afghan province of Herat. "So we want to see more efforts to stop the flow of drugs across Afghanistan's borders and the hitting of high-value targets to create a market disruption.
"We want to create a flood of drugs within Afghanistan. There will be so much opium inside Afghanistan unable to go out that the price will go down."
It looks like Costa has finally been mugged by reality.
When the Taliban allowed anyone to grow poppies in the late 1990s, the price of a kilo of opium fell to $30 on the streets of Kandahar because of the resulting glut. When Mullah Omar decreed it was no longer consistent with Islamic values to grow poppies in 2000, the prohibitionist price of opium shot up to $740/kilo just before the Sept. 11 attacks.
For the first time that I can recall, a prominent drug warrior has allowed the inconvenient truth of prohibition economics to intrude on his crusade.
Alas, Costa still clings to the idea that opium can still be stopped from leaking across the borders of Afghanistan. Still, the idea of allowing the natural devaluing of illicit crops by stopping eradication is more than a baby step -- it's a sea change in drug war thinking and it stops the counterproductive and inhuman "war" against peasant farmers. Now that he has admitted the futility of shoveling water, we can only hope he will abandon the idea of building a metaphorical wall around the country.While I truly applaud Costa's belated arrival to the real world, it is still a fairly simplistic solution he has outlined. Since the days of the Silk Road Afghanistan has been been famous for trading by merchants, plundering by bandits, and smuggling by tax evaders. The latter two groups know the terrain better than any Westerner or Google map and I doubt NATO can seal the borders from these people any more than they can keep the Taliban from walking back and forth
to Pakistan. It's also one of the most corrupt countries in the world so a little cash can facilitate a lot of smuggling.
While the addiction rates in Afghanistan are still relatively low and rising, the neighboring countries have a huge addiction and HIV problem as a result of cheap Afghan heroin. The situation is dire and demands real solutions.
Still, I think his policy switch is important for five main reasons:
1) It's the first time a top drug warrior has allowed the law of supply and demand to rear its inconvenient head into policymaking. Will wonders never cease? Once they have acknowledged
this, it's hard to go back and pretend they can still make illicit crops disappear by making them astronomically more valuable in a world where HALF of the human race "subsists" on less than $2/day.
2) It's hard to eradicate in a region where illicit crops have taken root and the trade networks have been established. It's a lot easier to prevent a region from converting to illicit crops in the first place. If farmers transition back to legal crops, those networks could recede and then they might have a chance of preventing their return if there is sufficient aid for infrastructure and credit.
3) Adam Smith's "invisible hand" will be the culprit that motivates farmers to switch crops on their own. It doesn't make NATO forces and the UN into the hated "bad guys" who eradicated the fields of peasant farmers and drove them into the arms of the Taliban. The Taliban's fatal mistake in 2000 was in imposing total prohibition of poppy cultivation. While it made some Taliban commanders fabulously wealthy because they had cornered the market on warehoused opium at pre-prohibition prices, it turned farmers against them because they starved and suffered as a result so they were happy to help NATO forces.
4) When the opium prices fall, the Taliban will have a harder time funding their war and fewer lives should be lost. This could hasten the withdrawal of combat troops and the decreased violence should allow for more effective development assistance -- assuming Congress doesn't repeat the mistakes of the last Afghan war against the Soviets. To recall, we wiped our asses and left as soon as the Soviets retreated thus leaving a perfect vacuum for civil war and eventual Taliban victory.
5) They can now stop punishing the weakest of the weak and the poorest of the poor. Forced eradication without providing viable alternative livelihoods is not only counterproductive, but it is also monstrously cruel.