Thursday, March 31, 2005

Guns, Germs, and Opium

Matthew Yglesias has a short post up over at Tapped regarding the US military's intention to become more involved in opium eradication efforts in Afghanistan. Naturally, he's skeptical of such an endeavor.
Unfortunately, there's every reason to think that mere military crackdowns and eradication campaigns will do little to improve the situation. These sorts of efforts may well reduce poppy cultivation (and hence improve the heroin problem in drug-consuming countries) but they'll do little to make things better for Afghans (indeed, they'll make things much worse) unless the inhabitants of that country are given non-poppy economic opportunities.
Of course, he's exactly right. Eliminating poppy farms through the direct application of force doesn't begin to address the longer-term issues. Once we get tired of fighting drug lords in Afghanistan, or we get distracted by events elsewhere, poppy production will bounce right back. It's basic macroeconomic theory. As long as the first world continues to maintain a voracious appetite for poppy based narcotics, poppies will bloom in Afghanistan.

Unless, says Matt, we give them "non-poppy economic opportunities." And again, he's right. This is just the next step in the macroeconomic equation. Right now, poppy production is the most profitable economic sector. Once another industry supplants poppy cultivation as an income generator, Afghanis will naturally transition to it. Problem solved.

Or is it? Once people realize the futility of eradicating drug markets through force, these sorts of solutions are a frequent next step. Drug producers, the thinking goes, just need to have their efforts redirected. If we could just convince them to grow coffee instead, they wouldn't need to grow whatever narcotic they are currently cultivating. In theory, this is a great idea. But, in practice, it isn't very realistic.

The geology of Afghanistan is not particularly well-suited to agriculture. It is an extremely mountainous land, with 49% of its territory existing above 2000 meters. It is also a relatively arid nation, with average annual rainfall reaching a mere 13 inches (compared with 40 inches for the United States). Estimates of the total amount of arable land vary between 12 and 22% of the total landmass. Additionally, they suffer from a host of environmental issues, such as soil degradation, overgrazing, deforestation, desertification, and increasing levels of air and water pollution. All of these factors make agriculture a difficult endeavor for the Afghanis.

Also, Afghanistan is a landlocked nation. The nearest seaport (in Karachi, Pakistan) is 1170 km away. Therefore, products destined for export must be fairly durable. They do trade with India and Pakistan, but their route to the remaining world markets is rather circuitous.

Considering the geology of the region, its distance from potential trading partners, and its relatively rudimentary agricultural technology, is there any crop that will make them economically competitive?

There sure is. It's called opium. And it's profitable there not because Afghanistan is a particularly good environmental host for this crop. It's profitable because few other nation-states allow its cultivation. The Afghanis, to their credit, have figured this out and are exploiting this advantage.

I think that when we talk about redirecting narcotic-based agriculture to other, more acceptable crops, there is a degree of first-world arrogance on display. There is an assumption that the locals are growing illicit crops because they don't know any better. If we swoop in and show them how it's done, they'll be making money hand over fist growing lettuce and tomatoes.

But, people in Afghanistan didn't just start farming last week. They've been doing it for thousands of years. The crops and cultivation techniques are what they are in Afghanistan because that is what works there. Knowing what they know about the productivity of the land, they have discovered the most profitable crop possible. Even if they adopted certain technological advances from the West, it wouldn't change the equation at all. They would just become more efficient opium producers.

So, when we talk about shifting their economy away from opium, we should really acknowledge what's going on. We're asking them take a gigantic pay cut. That's a pretty obnoxious request, considering our relative economic standing. And, moreover, it's never going to work in the long run. Any switch to nonnarcotic-based agriculture would have to be completely subsidized by donor nations for as long as we wanted the new system maintained. Once we take our hand off the scale, the forces that brought opium to Afghanistan in the first place would bring it right back.

This isn't to say that opium production isn't a problem. Because it remains an illicit commodity, the industry tends to attract nefarious characters. Concentrating so much economic might in the hands of such individuals has a terribly destabilizing effect on the nation at large. But, outside of literally paying farmers to grow other crops, there's not much to be done about it.

What really has to happen is that Afghanistan has to move beyond an agrarian economy. Given the natural gas and oil resources of the region, such a transition might be possible. But it won't be easy. It would require major changes at all levels of Afghan culture. It would require a great deal of capital investment. And negotiating the transition so that the economic benefits were equitably distributed within the country (as opposed to a distribution benefiting only foreign investors) would be a great challenge. Most of all, it won't be quick. Change of this nature, even for those eager to accept it, requires an unwavering determination spread across many years. It is not for the faint of heart.

Until we accept the magnitude of the undertaking, no change of consequence will occur in Afghanistan. They will continue to produce opium. That opium will finance criminal enterprise, rather than the construction of a strong central government. As long as the central government remains weak, it will be unable to regulate its territory -- and thus Afghanistan will continue to harbor groups and individuals who threaten the security of the free world.

That's the situation, folks. Hopefully, we'll soon be ready to face it.
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