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February 16, 2009

US to enlist Iran in Afghan drug war

I doubt that fighting the opium trade in Afghanistan is a worthwhile or feasible endeavor for the United States, but given that our leaders have embraced the project, they're wise to get Iran on board.


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With 1 million opium addicts Afghanistan cannot possibly be stabilized. Opium production accounts for more than 50% of Gross Domestic Product in Afghanistan. Afghanistan produces in excess of 90% of the world's opium poppy crop. US prisons are bulging at the seams with heroin addicts. Opium and its derivatives have been the cause endless global suffering and death. If the US and its allies fail to permanently erradicate opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan then a golden opportunity to make the world a better place will have been lost and the tradgedy of opium victims will continue.

The question isn't whether opium is a blight on Afghanistan, nor whether the drug trade is enriching some evil warlords who seek to undermine the entire U.S. mission.

The question is whether the U.S. and its legions of DynCorp contractors could succeed in eradicating Afghanistan's main cash crop, and, if so, whether the treatment would be worse than the disease, politically speaking. If you take away the livelihood of a large percentage of the population, they're not going to be receptive to your message of freedom and democracy.

The U.S. hasn't managed to wipe out coca in Colombia--despite billions of military aid and a friendly and basically functional government. Permanently eradicating a drug crop is a pipe dream, if you'll pardon the pun.

IMO, this is all part of the reason the U.S. should not escalate the war in Afghanistan. We missed our chance, if we ever had one.

Couldn't we pay them to plant something else?

What sort of climate does the northern poppy growing regions have?

If we could get them to plant something like, say, switch-grass or something else you could make into ethanol (I'm pretty sure the climate is too harsh for sugar cane), we could guarantee that we would by up 95% of their production, turn it into fuel almost on site, and use it in our military vehicles.

What we don;t use, we could sell at a profit.

Couldn't we pay them to plant something else?

Pay them to grow poppies. Just buy the whole opium crop (and the poppy seeds as long as we're at it). Pay the farmers more than the Taliban is willing to pay and sell the morphine and codeine derived from the opium on the legal world market. It'll be cheaper than the hopelessly Sisyphean Afghan war.

Couldn't we pay them to plant something else?

Pay them to grow poppies. Buy the whole opium crop. Pay more than whatever the Taliban is willing to pay and sell the morphine and codeine derived from the opium on the legitimate world market. It'll be cheaper than the hopelessly Sisyphean Afghan war project.

Well yeah, I guess we could just buy up all the opium that's the byproduct ... couldn;t someone point htat out to a big pharma lobbying firm?

IMO, this is all part of the reason the U.S. should not escalate the war in Afghanistan. We missed our chance, if we ever had one.

Missed our chance for what?

I'm not sure we ever had a chance to definitively defeat the Taliban and help the Afghans establish a popularly elected government, but that's the hypothetical opportunity I was alluding to. If that was ever possible, it's too late now. The Taliban have retrenched and the US has made a lot of enemies, and we'll surely make more if we keep destroying the poppy crop.

Buying the poppies or paying the farmers to plant something else is a lot more complicated than it sounds because the Taliban and assorted narco-warlords terrorize anyone who is seen to be cooperating with the U.S. government--especially in a way that directly threatens the very lucrative opium trade. Opium is the financial engine behind their military strength and their personal wealth, so they're not just going to let us buy off the peasants without a fight.

Afghanistan is a big, inhospitable country. It's hard to get out there and negotiate with the farmers individually on a scale that would make a dent in the problem. It's even harder to protect everyone who would need protecting when the local warlords figured out they'd cut deals with the U.S. If we can't protect them, and they get slaughtered en masse, we're back to square one in terms of drug cultivation and human rights and hearts and minds and basically every reason we ever gave for intervening in the first place.

The U.S. barely even has anyone who speaks Pashtun. Also, we're flat broke.

Here's the bottom line: The U.S. has tacitly acknowledged that we're not going to win the war in Afghanistan until we win the drug war in Afghanistan, and we NEVER win drug wars, ANYWHERE.

Cfrost I'm with you. We should decriminalize drugs, buy the opium at black market prices and prohibit the selling of arms. It would be a whole lot cheaper than an endless war we can not win. Spend money on building infrastructure. Better water systems would allow some irrigation, some sustainable crops and some drinking water for a change... What a concept!

Good points, suzib. Unfortunately, we would need to decriminalize opiates worldwide before we could hope to tackle the Afghan poppy trade.

In order to get the opium cultivation under control, the profit motive would have to disappear for the warlords, and that won't happen unless the lucrative global black market for heroin goes away.

If selling opium to make heroin wasn't profitable anymore, the warlords would leave the poppy cultivators alone and focus on some other lucrative sideline.

Without pressure from the warlords, some poppy cultivators would grow something else, or go back to cultivating opium domestic use in its unrefined form, which has been always been a part of their culture, much like alcohol or tobacco in the West.

There's no way we're going to get global decriminalization any time soon, unfortunately. What if we sold decriminalization to the U.S. public as the secret weapon to winning the war in Afghanistan? Maybe there's a missed opportunity here...

Couldn't we pay them to plant something else?

Yes, but that's considered foreign aid, which is hands down the least popular item on the US federal budget. That's unfortunate, because sometimes that kind of aid is the best way of ensuring the country can grow. Ideally, the best thing the US could do is spend more on such infrastructure as schools and hospitals in Afghanistan, on the model of aid to South Korea in the 1950s. This will make it easier for the country to urbanize to the point that the prices of one agricultural good don't really matter for most people.

What if we sold decriminalization to the U.S. public as the secret weapon to winning the war in Afghanistan? Maybe there's a missed opportunity here...

It will be very difficult. The anti-drug mindset comes from a particular way of viewing the world, which emphasizes problems that go against the public order: drugs, riots, crime, terrorism, rebellion. Because this worldview is so pro-hierarchy, it is used to hierarchical solutions. Decriminalization, especially when sold as a tradeoff between loss of authority when it comes to terrorism and loss of authority when it comes to drugs, is a non-starter.

If the US and its allies fail to permanently erradicate opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan then a golden opportunity to make the world a better place will have been lost and the tradgedy of opium victims will continue.

This is absurd. If you want to eradicate opium production you have to exterminate the poppy plant, literally make it extinct. Opium has been used recreationally since before recorded history. Given the demand production will just shift elsewhere. If you absolutely insist that the problem be addressed, attack demand. A tiny fraction of the cost of the war in Afghanistan spent on demand reduction could have huge positive impacts. Among those impacts would be reduced funding for terrorism.

Threads like this one (and the story that started it) make a great case for a worldwide decriminalization of the drug trade. It's obvious to just about anyone but the most diehard anti-drug zealots. Take away the profit motive and the black market that funds terrorism and insurgency operations dries up.

Lindsay, I actually believe that in late 2001 and early 2002 the combined forces of the Northern Alliance and NATO could have stabilized Afghanistan and perhaps eradicated the Taliban. Most of our military and diplomatic resources were active in the area at that time, and we had the both the advantage of (mostly) worldwide support and tactical surprise. The Afghanistan mission was going rather well until Tora Bora and the later decision to pull resources out of theater and position them for Iraq.

Just the other day, an additional 17,000 soldiers were slotted for Afghanistan duty. The problem is, it's a little too late for such a small increase. We'd need either a draft to send an additional 150,000 GIs, or a serious diplomatic job by Hilary to get some more allies on board and on station. I'm not saying that more firepower will satiate the problems facing Pakistan and Afghanistan, but it would go a long way towards putting the Taliban back on the defensive.

The next logical step, aside from more war and dead people, would be decriminalization (particularly here in the US) and the above proposed opium purchases. But even with a Democratic Party controlled government apparatus, logical decision making and actions seem like a lot to ask for.

A byproduct of legalization here in the US would be stabilization of the border with Mexico and a huge new tax base that could theoretically wipe out our federal deficit and provide health care and rehab services to those who have the worst mental and physical addictions to the hard stuff, like opium and heroin.

The $300 billion dollar black market for illicit drugs here in the US could produce billions, if not hundreds of billions in new tax revenues.

But there are just too many enemies both here and abroad to make all of this happen. Big Pharma would throw a shit fit because drugs like Ritilin and Prozac would become obsolete as more and more users decide to 'self-medicate'...The Prison Corporations and Guard Unions would complain and pump millions worth of political slush money into Congress to stop decriminalization. Perhaps the self righteous christian right wankers who fund their 'god will help you rehab' programs with Faith Based Initiative money would also try to get into the anti-drug act. Let's not forget all of the state financed yet privately owned alcohol SATOP drunk driver reeducation centers that are on nearly every corner in suburban America because they will want a piece of the action, too.

Yep, logic is indeed a pipe dream. (what a great allusion for a topic like this!)

Revenantive, you're inconsistent. Either prices will crash due to decriminalization, which will take the punch out of the drug gangs, or they will stay up to enable the government to collect a few billions in taxes. (Anything more than a few billion dollars is a pipedream - the existing black market will circumvent any serious tax.)

Another thing I barely understand is the idea that the only groups with an interest in fighting drugs are pernicious corporations. Behavior-modifying drugs cause a lot of public disturbances; that's why cities try to fight off alcohol with open container laws and restrictions on how late bars can stay open. There are good arguments to be made against these laws, but throwing off scary words like "Big Pharma" and "Prison Corporations" isn't one of them.

Alon, prison guard unions and corrections trade industry spend millions to fight decriminalization at the state and federal level as a centerpiece of their legislative agenda.

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about an article in the Boston Phoenix about prison guard unions and prison corporation lobbyists fighting mild decriminalization ballot initiatives in Massachusetts and other states during the last election cycle.

Legalized, taxed drugs do contribute a fair amount of money to the treasury every year. In 2005, tobacco taxes generated $13 billion for state budgets and another $7.7 billion for the federal treasury. Revenues from cigarette taxes have declined somewhat as more people quit, cut back, or resort to black market cigarettes. Alcohol taxes brought in about $5.4 billion to state and federal treasuries in 2006.

It's hard to say how much tax revenue the illicit drug market would bring it. Marijuana taxes alone could be a significant source of revenue.

It's not just the taxes that people would pay on the drugs. Drug cartels don't pay corporate taxes, or income taxes, or payroll taxes for their "employees." If you work for a drug cartel, you probably don't pay income taxes on your earnings, either. Bringing some of that trade back into the legitimate economy would generate tax revenues at every step.

It could also eliminate the need for so many private prisons.

True. The extra revenue we'd generate in taxes on formerly illicit drugs would probably be a pittance compared to the amount we'd save on prisons and law enforcement, and other Drug War expenses including the billions upon billions of dollars we spend on military aid to Columbia and Mexico specifically to stamp out the drug trade.

As expensive as they are, even domestic prisons are a drop in the bucket compared to the total cost of the War on Drugs. It's not just police and courts and prisons and customs and parole officers in the US that are overburdened by the drug war. Our military and our intelligence services spend a significant chunk of their resources specifically on the drug war, too.

By its own admission the US Southern Command is basically a drug interdiction operation these days, according to a colleague of mine who went to a briefing there a couple weeks ago.

I mean, if you really wanted to be thorough about quantifying the overall financial impact of decriminalization, you'd have to consider what non-violent offenders would have paid in income taxes if they hadn't been locked up. That includes more than the government's cut of the taxable income they missed out on because they were locked up, it's the permanent hit to their lifetime earnings because they have a drug conviction.

I'm not sure how you're getting from "billions upon billions" to Revenantive's promise of "a huge new tax base that could theoretically wipe out our federal deficit." Most of the numbers you give are only a handful of billions, and might actually decrease total government revenue if balanced against a drop in property values in places that would attract more drug addicts. For example, the taxes locked inmates would pay aren't enough - if you released a million inmates, who would then pay the average federal tax rate, you'd generate less than $10 billion. And most inmates come from poor background and pay hardly any federal taxes.

[T]he Taliban and assorted narco-warlords terrorize anyone who is seen to be cooperating with the U.S. government

Except, of course, for the narco-warlords in the current Afghan government, who are more than happy to co-operate with the US. Consider, for example, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Deputy Defence Minister, who controls the most productive poppy-growing regions with his 20,000 strong private army.

Decriminalisation isn't an answer, especially at the supply end. Full legalisation might be - although I don't know what it would do about murderous thugs like Dostum.

I was scanning through wikipedia and google and noticed some stunning numbers.

The Afghanistan Opium/Heroin trade is estimated to be around $4 Billion/Year. With that kind of money flowing around, much of it pure profit, the folks at the top of the food chain could easily afford their own personal and private 20,000 strong army or fund lots of insurgency and terror activities.

In California, the production of Marijuana alone is estimated at $12 Billion/Year. Kentucky generates about $4.5 Billion/Year...Washington State about $1 Billion/Year. Hawaii produces $4 billion/Year... AND THAT'S JUST THE GRASS!~~

Worldwide, the illegal drug trade is estimated to be $300-$400 Billion/Year according to wiki. Using cigarettes as a model, you could count on at least a 35% tax rate on any legalized sales taxes for local gov't. Assuming a low figure of around %100 billion for illicit drug sales here in the US...a 35% tax rate could easily generate at least $35 Billion/Year here in the USA. Factor in the savings from the prison industry, law enforcement on the streets, etc. and you're talking big time cash. I would guess at least $50 Billion/Year as a conservative estimate.

Over a 20 year period that's a cool Trillion dollars in taxes for Federal and State governments. Now, I'm just pulling numbers from google and wiki, and inserting lots of conjecture. But a trillion over 20 years is a lot of money, and that kind of cash could be put to far better use than it is today. A trillion could fix Social down the federal debt...establish localized health care...the possibilities are endless.

Alon, yes a million or so drug addicts released from prison would cause all sorts of social and law enforcement problems initially, but looking at the big picture the recidivism rate for addicts would be virtually nil assuming they are non-violent. All the addicts would probably be quite happy with a bit of pleasure and good times free from government interference. In addition, most of them would probably reintegrate into society just fine. How many daily stoners who also hold full-time jobs and live an otherwise crime free existence do you know? I know a quite a few, and none of them are bad people and all of them pay taxes and live the american dream... A controlled environment for drug distribution using the Amsterdam model would reduce murder rates, robberies and make large sporting events much safer. (A recent World Cup was held in the Netherlands and the usual hooligan problem was virtually nonexistent.)

Another byproduct of legalization would be the cottage industry that produces the dope for mass consumption. We're talking about a business model that is the single most profitable around. Most estimate drug sale profits to be nearly 300-400%. A legalized industry would bring the profit margins down significantly, but there's still a lot of overhead left for entrepreneurship.

There is quite an interesting guest post about the economics of legalisation over on Dispatches From The Culture Wars: Marijuana as an Economic Stimulus. Turns out it's quite a complicated question.

Yes, in a perfect world drugs world be legal. Some responsible government/big pharm partnership would buy up Afghan dope & cook it up to make meds for sick babies. Or we could pay Afghans to grow tomatoes instead of poppies.

While completely rational (except the tomatoes part), this would take a paradigm shift of epic proportions. We're years away from this happening and that's being mad optimistic.

Soon after the Russkies charged in the Afghani provinces went all Wild, Wild West. Afghanistan burst onto the world drug trafficking stage big time. In the three decades since heroin production has ebbed and flowed depending on the country's stability & its leaders' political power. It's exploded to an unprecedented level under Karzai and the ole US of A.

I don't see this changing anytime soon. The average Afghan farmer makes close to 50x more growing poppies than he does wheat. No small wonder hardly anyone's growing food there anymore.

Warlords, tribal chiefs, drug traffickers are making many times more than farmers. It's fueled massive corruption at every level of Karzai's government. I mean every level. Even were that not true Karzai's so weak he'd be in no position to do anything about it.

Afghanistan is so fucked up that its top cash "crops" are basically opium, human trafficking (especially children), kidnapping, human organs & weapons. Taking on opium alone will hurt the poorest people first, spike #s 2-5, take a larger force than we're prepared to commit and cost far more than we can possibly afford.

The sad truth is as in Iraq, we broke Afghanistan. We bought it. We had our chance. Now we're way past fixing it.

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