Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Ministry of Defence propaganda and the Afghan drug war

The media today is full of reports about a massive military operation in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, codenamed DIESEL. Closer examination reveals reporting of the operation to have been dramatically propagandized by the Ministry of Defense, with the media acting as their willing - if somewhat confused - accomplices. Somehow a story about less than a £100,000 worth of raw opium has been transformed into a story about £50,000,000 worth of 'deadly heroin'.

Reports of the story in different media are strangely contradictory:

The Sun told us that

“Enough raw materials to produce heroin with a street value of £50million was seized from a sprawling network of compounds.”

The Press Association reported that:

“A daring military operation in Afghanistan has seized heroin and drug-making chemicals with an estimated final street value of more than £50 million”.

The headline in the usually reliable Guardian was

“British troops seize £50m of Taliban narcotics”
with the coverage noting that:

“Troops recovered more than 400kg of raw opium in one drug factory and nearly 800kg of heroin in another.”

From the Telegraph we learnt that:

“British forces have seized £50 million of heroin and killed at least 20 Taliban fighters in a daring raid that dealt a significant blow to the insurgents in Afghanistan."

the Independent told us that:

“Troops seize £50m of Afghan opium”
Whilst the for the BBC it was

“Raids seize £50m of Afghan heroin”

One of the MOD issued action shots: In the Daily Mail this image is subtitled with:

"Operation Diesel: British troops have taken £50million worth of heroin during an attack on a remote Taliban stronghold in Afghanistan"

These are just 7 out of the 100s of reports (600+ listed on Google news), each of the above with a different version of events. They cant all be right, so which one is? Bizarrely enough, a cursory check of the Ministry of Defence's online account reveals they are all wrong.

The MOD website account describes three separate drug finds: one of ‘over 60kg of wet opium’, another of ‘over 400kg of raw opium’ and a third, ‘the largest find of opium on the operation, nearly 800kg’. Along with this opium a “massive supply of the essential chemicals required to make heroin were discovered; sacks of Ammonium Chloride, barrels of Acetic Anhydride and other chemicals that were piled up ready for use”.

So operation DIESEL, in reality, resulted in the finding and destruction of somewhere in the region of 1300kg of unprocessed opium and an a quantity of the chemicals required to process opium into heroin. A few quick sums: According to the UNODC the 'farm-gate' price for opium in Afghanistan in 2008 was $85 a kilo, and these DIESEL stockpiles were presumably not far from the Helmand farms on which they were produced. 1300 x 85 = $110,500, in other words, opium worth approximately £78,000 to the Taliban, at this point in the supply chain.

Were this 1300kg of opium to have been turned into low grade heroin (and we can reasonably suspect that this was what was going to happen), on the basis that it takes around 10kg of opium to produce 1 kg of heroin, it would have produced around 130kg. If the ‘street price’ of a kilo of heroin in the UK is estimated to be around £50- 75,000, then 130 kilos would earn you somewhere between £6.5 and £9.7 million. A very large sum of money certainly, albeit nowhere near £50 million.

The UK street price of a kilo of heroin is, however, vastly inflated above what a kilo of heroin in Afghanistan is worth to the Taliban – the only ‘farm-gate’ price estimate I can find is £450*. But that seems low so lets be generous and put it at a nice round £1000; you are still looking at a Taliban heroin haul worth only £130,000 (and even if the Taliban sold it on the next link in the supply chain at some point in the future for ten times this, the figure only reaches £1,300,000). According to the Independent report the following were found: 5,000kg of ammonium chloride, 1,025 litres of acetic anhydride, 1,000kg of salt and 300kg of calcium hydroxide, which the MOD tells us is exactly enough chemicals to process a conveniently media friendly total of £50million pounds (UK street value) worth of heroin, but this would only be the case if there had been another 5-10 tons of opium seized, which there wasn't. The chemicals themselves are not especially hard to get hold of, or expensive (relative to the profits being made anyway), and processing opium into low grade morphine/heroin for transport is not especially difficult.

None the less, through the prism of MOD drug war propaganda and lazy journalism a story about £78,000 worth of opium has miraculously transmuted into a story about £50,000,000 worth of ‘deadly heroin’.

Defense secretary John Hutton plays this willful misunderstanding for all its worth, quoted extensively (from the MOD report) saying that:

“The seizure of £50 million worth of narcotics will starve the Taliban of crucial funding preventing the proliferation of drugs and terror on the UK's streets.”

So lets be clear; Hutton claims '£50million worth of narcotics' was seized, a ‘fact’ which is demonstrably shown to be untrue by the very same report he is quoted in. Numerous media outlets in the UK and around the world then ran the story that '£50m of heroin' was seized (Daily Mail, Telegraph, BBC etc) – even though no heroin was seized and the 50million figure is pure fiction (one that goes some way beyond the tired old 'make the seizure sound as big as possible by quoting the street price’ trick). The MOD report even opens with the (slightly different) claim that they captured ‘drugs, chemicals and equipment with a UK street value of £50m’ – which is also multi-tiered nonsense.

Worse still, and even if you want to argue the toss over the street value figures, the Hutton quote appears to deliberately imply that the Taliban have somehow been deprived of £50million in funds by this action – when in fact the reality is probably nearer £130,000, and this is assuming that these were indeed establishments entirely in the control of, and serving the profits of the Taliban, which again we have to take on trust from the MOD, and assuming they had a way of establishing it as fact. The Taliban and network of opium farmers also have stockpiles of opium, estimated by the UNODC to run to several 1000's of tons, so it is unlikely this raid will have any serious impact on supply. Moreover, evidence clearly suggests (and indeed the UNODC have argued) that restricting supply serves to increase prices - so the the net impact on profits of sporadic interdiction successes will be even less - potentially even boosting the value of remaining stockpiles.

According to the UNODC’s most recent Afghanistan report the Taliban are making between $250 and $470 million (or £175 - £330 million) a year from the Afghan drug economy (both in taxing poppy farmers and direct involvement in production and export) based on production of between 7 and 8 thousand tons of opium. This rather puts some of the ministers’ grand claims into perspective; this mission prevented maybe £100k in Taliban profits, and destroyed just over one ton of opium (and 20 dead Taliban).

To achieve this triumphant success took 700 troops and veritable fleet of high tech armoury and helicopter gunships (“including RAF Chinooks, Royal Navy Sea Kings and Lynx, joined by US CH53 Sea Stallions”). It will all have doubtless been fantastically expensive, and whilst we are in no position to estimate exactly what the operation did cost (PQ anyone?) we can be sure it would have been many many millions.

This is nothing less than a classic example of war time propaganda – and the madness of the drug war requires more propaganda to support it than most. Reading the MOD report makes this all the more clear. The media were provided with action photos, and action video footage as well as an account that reads like a Boys own war story. The targets are variously described as ‘labs’, ‘drug factories’ and ‘processing plants’ discovered in a ‘chain of compounds’, all sounding rather more like a Bond-villain’s high-tech lair than the mud huts full of dirty plastic bags and rusty barrels we see in the video footage.

The standard issue 'kicking the door down' drug-bust action shot

It has been a quite brilliant propaganda coup for the MOD, with the media uncritically reporting their account, ludicrously inflated statistics and all (and still almost all of them getting even that completely wrong, including the broadsheets). Some of the reporting is extraordinary; The BBC even ran the ‘Raids seize £50m of Afghan heroin’ headline, despite in the body of its report noting that ‘Troops destroyed 1,295kg of wet opium, estimated to have a street value of more than £6m as heroin’.

The need for such propaganda is not surprising. The Afghan conflict is a disaster; despite many billions being spent by the UK, the country is falling apart. The Taliban are resurgent, there is no evidence that the attack on the drug economy is achieving anything positive in the UK or Afghanistan, and the UK soldier casualty list has grown to 145 (one more announced today), not to mention the US and Afghan casualties. The MOD obviously need stories of success like this more desperately than ever, to give the impression they are 'winning' even when the opposite is true. That the operation was 'brilliant', 'daring', 'brave' and 'skillful' is not the point - it does not mean that it wasn't also ultimately futile or even counterproductive. The last thing the Government wants is for people to be told the truth; not just that the Afghanistan drug war is a disaster, but that it is the Government’s complicity in global drug prohibition that gifts control of the completely unregulated opium market to the Taliban insurgents and War lords in the first instance. Half of the worlds opium production is entirely legal and regulated for the medical opiates market (a small proportion of which is prescribed to addicts as heroin) and this legal production is not funding any paramilitary groups, mafiosi, or terrorists. We do have a choice.

More surprising perhaps is that the media, even what we like to think of as the quality end of the market, were so happy to uncritically regurgitate it all. Questioning the Government's account of foreign wars in not a betrayal of our troops – quite the opposite. It is what the media should be doing, and we have been badly let down.

Update 19.02.09:

I have now spoken briefly to the MOD press office. They maintain that the UK street price calculations are based on the heroin being sold at 40% purity. The calculations above are based on the UK street price of a kilo of heroin being sold at £75K. This translates into £75 a gram which is around double the usual street price anyway - so this would not substantially alter the analysis. Even if we do double the UK street price valuation - this still only takes it to a range of £12-20million.

See also:

*The £450 figure comes from this report: Matrix Knowledge Group (2007). The illicit drug trade in the United Kingdom. Home Office Online Report 20/07. London: Home Office. It is a bit confusing - it seems too high to be referring to opium (unless you go back to 2001-2003) but does define farm-gate price of 'heroin' as the price received by the farmer before any subsequent processing’ - any clarification of this or alternative data would be appreciated.


Anonymous said...

Your £100,000 estimate seems spot on. Apart from the massive cost of the operation which is excluded from the PR spin, there doesn't appear to be any reports of casualties. It would be interesting to consider how much morphine or equivalent would all those troops be carrying in their first aid kits, how much gets used treating casualties in the Afghan war and how much better it would be if we bought it from the farmers there who desperately need the money.
Ian S

Anonymous said...

I tried to debunk this obviously inaccurate story in the Times yesterday, but unsurprisingly my comment was rejected.

I previously noted here that the BBC was deliberately confusing opium and heroin and my suspicion that this was due to the rules of engagement being intentionally blurred.

As Juan Cole pointed out yesterday, the new emphasis on drug interdiction in Afghanistan is the policy most likely to lose hearts and minds to the Taliban.

A cynic or conspiracy theorist might suggest that with the disastrous Iraq operation being wound down, the military-industrial complex requires the disastrous Afghan operation to be ratcheted up in order to maintain profitability.

Anonymous said...

Great explanation, Steve.
(And good to see it getting linked from Jon Snow's blog.)

Anonymous said...

Matrix are one of these rapacious private sector consultancies who get commissioned to do reports like this whilst only having a wafer-thin understanding of the issues.

Unknown said...

Bad Science has more about how the figures are completely wrong.

Anonymous said...

According to the UK Drug Policy Commission report 'Tackling Drug Markets and Distribution Networks in the UK' published in July 2008, a gram of 'heroin' would cost £45 in 2007, down from £70 in 2000. That 'heroin' would be around 46% heroin.

130kg of heroin converted to 282kg of 'street heroin' would fetch £12.7 million.

Steve Rolles said...

that's within what I have suggested above - the point is that a) its still nowhere near 50million and b) the Taliban would get only a tiny fraction of that.

The UKDPC report is a lit review BTW - using secondary sources.

Anonymous said...

It was the £450 a kilo I was referring to. £45 a gm is £45000 a kg

But, yes it still comes out at £12.7m and it's still under $150k for the Taliban.

I know it's a review, it was the first one I came to and since all numbers about drugs are estimates it was good enough.

Anonymous said...

The other thing that worries me about this story is the 20 dead "Taliban". I accept that the insurgency probably extracts a tax from every part of the the chain : growers, manufacturers, transporters & traders. However, I doubt whether Taliban fighters actually get their hands dirty by doing the actual hard graft. At most, they may provide protection for transportation and check consignments for weight to determine fees. Those doing the actual menial tasks of opium preparation, for example, will be the peasant farmers themselves or their children. Do our troops shoot them as they run into the fields in panic ? Is the whole operation conducted in the same way as an SAS assault on terrorists holding hostages ?

We know that NATO commanders originally opposed this type of operation as being counter-productive to the overall strategy of the occupation. Now that the WoD-obsessed US fanatics have firmly taken control of strategy, we can expect many more operations of this type. We can also expect to see support for the Taliban grow. Meanwhile, allied transport routes are being slowly strangled and the costs to the British taxpayer are escalating obscenely. And for what ?

Steve Rolles said...

chris - yes that element had occured to me but i didnt have enough information to comment - and felt it was for others to take up that particular issue. That ofcourse is the problem. These MOD facts are not subject to independent srcutiny or checking by media or NGOs on the ground - as there are none. How do we know the deaths were Taliban or not, or that the facility was Taliban. We don't - we have to take it on trust that this has been reliably established, and given the propagandist nature of the rest of the reporting I am not minded to trust any of the report. If there had been civilian casualties would we seriously have been notified in the press reports?

I suppose it might be possible to pursue this with PQs but i doubt it would lead anywhere useful.

Anonymous said...

Correcting for the drugscope street prices, they still destroyed chemicals that had the potential to make £20m worth of heroin. Opium is very easily available, whereas getting hold of all the chemicals is nowhere near as easy and cheap, as most have to be imported from outside Afghanistan. Still misleading to say £50m of narcotics was seized nonetheless, but only because of the different calculation of street prices.