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The UN's hopeless war against Afghan opium

By Howard Richman, Raymond Richman and Jesse Richman
web posted May 3, 2010

On September 11, 2001, al-Qaida, then sheltered by the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, bombed the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In response, during the winter of 2001-2002, we attacked Afghanistan, driving al-Qaida and their Taliban protectors out of the country. The Taliban had ceased to be an organized force. We had won!

Afghan opium productionAmerican troops had been welcomed as liberators in the Afghan countryside because the Taliban had banned the cultivation of the opium poppy in 2001, a disaster for the Afghan farmers whose chief crop was the poppy. The graph shows the 2001 drop-off in Afghan opium production.

As the supply went down, the price of opium poppies skyrocketed. According to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC):

An abrupt decline of illicit opium poppy cultivation was recorded in Afghanistan in 2001, following the ban imposed by the Taliban regime in its last year in power. Despite the existence of significant stocks of opiates accumulated during previous years of bumper harvests, the beginning of a heroin shortage became apparent on some European markets by the end of 2001. Furthermore, the absence of the usual harvest in Afghanistan in spring 2001 and the subsequent depletion of stocks pushed opium prices upwards to unprecedented levels in the country (prices increased by a factor of 10), creating a powerful incentive for farmers to plant the 2002 crop. (p. 3)

There is an important economic lesson here. You can't stop an addictive drug by interdicting its supply. Addicts will demand the drug, no matter what the price. If you want to reduce consumption, you have to cut demand, not supply.

After the U.S. victory, the UN was anxious to prevent the resumption of opium planting. In February 2002, the UNODC (then called UNODCCP) conducted a quick survey which revealed the resumption of opium planting. That's when President Bush snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. With UN bureaucrats cheering from the sidelines, he used American troops to conduct an unsuccessful eradication campaign which turned the countryside against both American troops and UN surveyors, as the UNODC noted:

In April 2002, at the onset of the opium harvest in eastern and southern Afghanistan, the Afghan Interim Administration (AIA) launched an eradication campaign (with compensations). Some farmers' reactions to this measure resulted in a temporary deterioration of the security situation for UNODCCP's surveyors who were withdrawn from the opium poppy growing area. (p. 13)

The UN inspectors left Afghanistan, because the countryside had become unsafe. From then on, they conducted their opium surveys by satellite. But the American opium eradication campaign continued, putting American troops and the American mission in danger.

Meanwhile, the Taliban decided to defend opium production while taxing it. As a result, they soon became the government of the Afghan countryside. By the end of November 2008, UNODC reported that the Taliban war machine was being almost completely financed by the Afghan opium trade:

The opium industry is largely funding the Taliban's war budget and is a major source of revenue for criminal groups and terrorists in Afghanistan…

"With so much drug-related revenue, it is not surprising that the insurgent's war machine has proven so resilient, despite the heavy pounding by Afghan and allied forces," said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa.

The Bush administration eventually gave up on the hopeless strategy of eradicating opium in the fields, substituting, instead, the hopeless strategy of interdicting opium at the borders, a strategy being continued by the Obama Administration.

But Afghan President Karzai is not sufficiently enthusiastic about this war against the Afghan farmer. Here's a selection from an April 7 commentary by Tony Blankley detailing Obama's escalating attacks against Karzai:

(A)bout five months ago, the New York Times also reported that Mr. Obama "admonished President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan that he must take on what American officials have said he avoided during his first term: the rampant corruption and drug trade that have fueled the resurgence of the Taliban."...

(B)y first hesitating to support Mr. Karzai, then saying we will support him — but only for 18 months, then publicly admonishing him to end the endemic corruption, then leaking the fact that his own brother is a major drug smuggler, we have undermined and infuriated him, without whom we cannot succeed in Afghanistan....

The Obama administration threatens to depose Karzai within 18 months. If they do so, they will be repeating President Kennedy's mistake when he deposed South Vietnam's President Ngo Dinh Diem in order to install a more compliant puppet, thus destroying the credibility of the local government with whom we were allied.

The UN bureaucracy's war against opium has already turned the Afghan farmer against us, reinstalled the Taliban in the countryside, and given the Taliban a steady source of funding. Now it is ruining our relationship with the Afghan government.

We need to decide whether we want to fight the UN bureaucracy's hopeless war against Afghan opium, or win our war against Islamic terrorism. ESR

The authors maintain a blog at www.idealtaxes.com, and co-authored the 2008 book, Trading Away Our Future: How to Fix Our Government-Driven Trade Deficits and Faulty Tax System Before it's Too Late, published by Ideal Taxes Association.







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