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the other drug war, in that other place
August 11, 2010 9:18 PM   Subscribe

While most of the attention in the war on drugs has been focused on Mexico of late, the opium trade in Afghanistan is still alive. Though perhaps not as well this year, as Tajikistan reports far less opium crossing the border, attributed to more use within Afghanistan as well as an unexplained poppy blight. With yields dropping and prices rising, US-backed efforts to encourage farmers to grow alternate crops (previously) may be derailed, despite a trade agreement with Pakistan which promises to open the country's borders to more trade in legitimate consumer goods with India. Meanwhile, people are looking into ways to turn the poppy fields into biofuels.
posted by jackflaps (21 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
The plan seems to be to eliminate opium by buying all the poppies at market rate, convert it to oil and then sell it at a fraction of the price to biorefineries. I can't imagine this working very well.
posted by bhnyc at 10:08 PM on August 11, 2010


I for one, welcome our new opium-smelling diesel overlords.
posted by wierdo at 10:19 PM on August 11, 2010


s/I for/I, for/ :(
posted by wierdo at 10:20 PM on August 11, 2010


I'm trying to remember if I ever told the story of my encounter with the Taliban opium salesman.
posted by Meatbomb at 11:05 PM on August 11, 2010


The plan seems to be to eliminate opium by buying all the poppies at market rate, convert it to oil and then sell it at a fraction of the price to biorefineries. I can't imagine this working very well.

All they're doing is increasing demand for poppies, which will drive prices higher (probably MUCH higher), which in turn will cause more of them to come under cultivation. It would be like pretty much every other tactic we've ever tried in the War on Drugs -- a short-term success, which leads to abject failure and a MUCH worse overall condition as the market adjusts.

Buy all you like. They'll make more.
posted by Malor at 12:00 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm trying to remember if I ever told the story of my encounter with the Taliban opium salesman.

stop remembering and start telling!
posted by mannequito at 12:08 AM on August 12, 2010


"Buy all you like. They'll make more."

This is an excellent and pithy summary, and it bears repeating.
posted by Meatbomb at 12:08 AM on August 12, 2010


All they're doing is increasing demand for poppies

Also imagine the corruption and how well subsidized farming normally goes.

The NYT link has an interesting point- The American military — which has decided that widespread eradication can be counterproductive to winning over Afghans...

So now the military may be able to encourage Afghans to grow poppies and save the environment and everyone is happy.
posted by bhnyc at 12:54 AM on August 12, 2010


I had no idea how to score in Kabul. Security concerns were such that I couldn't just be wandering around on the streets looking. I could not try to involve any of the local staff of the NGO, it would almost certainly get back to my superiors.

Aha! Facebook!

So here's what I did... don't remember exactly the group but it was "friends of Afghanistan" or "Afghans in English" or whatever... big mess of Facebook Afghans. Then I filtered for "extremely liberal" politics... and here is this guy in a hip-hop pose, funky sunglasses, saying he travels between Brooklyn, London, and Afghanistan and looking to meet "cool people". Just for the sake of it let's call him Nissar Achmad.

So I pop a few messages back and forth on Facebook, trying to be cool but explaining that I am in Kabul, and was hoping he could "help me out"... Finally got his cell phone number, and try it, and yes he is here in Kabul!

"So what are you calling about exactly?"
"Well, you know... I am new here, and would like someone local who can help me out... finding things..."
"Are you American?"
"Canadian."

He agrees to meet me just a couple blocks from my hotel. He will be waiting in a car, I should call him when I am out on the street in front of the park. I call, describe myself, he describes the car. Hey, right on, there he is. I get in.

He starts explaining the need for complete trust. He can't do business with someone unknown, the place is crawling with CIA, FBI, DEA, US Army... If I want to do business I will need to surrender my passport to him, come with him to his home province...

Holy shit, I'm thinking. I thought I would score a few grams of hash, pay my money, and be on my merry way.

"Umm, I am not sure we understand each other," I say. "I really just want to buy some hash."

"Sure, man, I can get you hash. My people have hashish, opium, heroin, but for starters we will only sell you a couple of kilos. We need to build trust and know you are OK before we start any larger relationship."

"Oh. Well see, I am just an end user. I do not think I can get through a kilo of hash in my time here. I was hoping for a few grams, maybe an ounce..."

"Sorry, I can't help you there."

And I am standing on the street with my Taliban drug lord speeding away.

Eventually I did manage to score through my driver. Afghan hash is dirt cheap, has a beautiful smell of spices and flowers, oily, soft, deep dark brown and most very excellent.

I would like to return to Afghanistan, for long enough that buying kilos would be feasible.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:43 AM on August 12, 2010 [15 favorites]


Question:

Where do all opiates used in the medical industry come from?

I've been trying to find a definitive answer for a while now and I'm yet to be successful.

Also, @meatbomb:
Too funny. Remind me to tell you about my Costa Rican story some time..
posted by tbonicus at 2:16 AM on August 12, 2010


I've been trying to find a definitive answer for a while now and I'm yet to be successful.

India, Turkey and Tasmania. Look into the 80/20 rule which governs where the US buys raw opium (from Turkey and India). The rest of the world mostly buys from the Tasmanian poppy farmers.
posted by atrazine at 2:22 AM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


tbonicus: From various countries (19, IIRC) licensed to cultivate the plant. Major producers are Turkey, Australia, India.
posted by daksya at 2:22 AM on August 12, 2010


So here is a report from the U.S. Institute of Peace "How Opium Profits the Taliban" (pdf) which explains: "When U.S.-led forces invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, the Taliban’s ban on poppy cultivation had been in force for fifteen months, and there were virtually no poppy fields across the Afghan south."

So we are expected to believe that the Taliban profits from opium, but when the Taliban were in power there were virtually no poppy fields in areas under Taliban control.

If America wants to wipe out the opium trade in Afghanistan there is only one solution: leave.
posted by three blind mice at 2:45 AM on August 12, 2010


"Sorry, I can't help you there."

And I am standing on the street with my Taliban drug lord speeding away.


Ah yes, the old Taliban Salesman Problem.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:28 AM on August 12, 2010 [3 favorites]


This is great. It's regular as clockwork. Some poor stringer can't find anything to write about, and comes out with an article on whether [cropX] is the solution to the opium problem: cue interview with the bold, newly arrived and generally clueless expat running the ill-conceived programme. It's been saffron, rose oil, cumin, apricots, vegetable processing, raisins, can't even remember them all. My personal favourite was tooling along past a field with a big NGO sign on it, with roses the regulation metre and a half apart, all ready to be boiled down, and lines of opium plants growing between. While pomegranates are a new one, it does seem like the 'latest plan' is very similar to all the previous ones.

Also, unless we know hectarage grown and average yields, we'll not figure out whether the Afghans are simply holding onto stocks of brown sugar for trouble coming down the track, to drive the price down, or there's a genuine reduction. Probably a bit of all three.

Incidentally, three blind mice, that's nonsense - the Taliban are widely supposed only to have stopped the opium for one season, 2000, so that they could sell off the stocks under ground. If you think leaving will stop Afghans growing an extremely lucrative cash crop, you are mistaken. Of course, being there isn't making a blind bit of difference either, but that's something else. Our presence is not the cause of all the ills in Afghanistan.
posted by YouRebelScum at 4:49 AM on August 12, 2010


YRS: the Taliban are widely supposed only to have stopped the opium for one season, 2000, so that they could sell off the stocks under ground.

From the report I linked to, it's unclear:

Many who encountered the Taliban at their outset say aspects of the tale were true: the early Taliban were well intentioned, even if their methods were medieval. According to people who witnessed the movement from its inception, they even initially made a commitment (which they acted on a handful of times) to stamp out the opium trade. This commitment was swiftly dropped as political realities and a need for funds overcame their original objectives. Despite their efforts at myth making, the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan had little to do with the grace of Allah as they claimed. From its inception, the movement appeared to rely on the financial backing of an unholy alliance of drug smugglers, traders, and trucking groups.

It would seem when the Americans invaded in 2001, the Taliban's priorities shifted. Without Ronald Reagan pumping money into the country to fight the previous invading army, they had to turn somewhere for the coin to defend themselves against the new invading army.

Point is that no foreign army of occupation, engaged in nation building, is going to be able to do anything about the opium trade other than make it worse. On the other hand, it seems the Taliban had some limited success in controlling the production of opium.
posted by three blind mice at 5:26 AM on August 12, 2010


Without Ronald Reagan pumping money into the country to fight the previous invading army

Don't forget the $43 million Bush gave them in May 2001 for eliminating the poppy crop!
posted by rtha at 5:47 AM on August 12, 2010


The BBC article linked by the OP contains some really stunning and interesting narrative about the close tie between opium addiction, in children as young as 10, and oppressive labor conditions in Afghanistan.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 8:10 AM on August 12, 2010


Taliban elimination of the poppy crop was largely a myth. There was a bumper crop in 1999 and full warehouses to the point that they couldn't store it. Poppy production was down because the drug lords weren't paying high prices. The Taliban used this condition for an effective propaganda win by shooting up a few drug labs and burning a few fields.

Poppies are profitable, but not always just like other agricultural goods. The solution we are now working towards is increasing the prices farmers are paid for non-poppy crops and ignoring poppy production where possible. Furthermore the Taliban and other warlords tax all farmers not just on their opium. So if we can win the trust of farmers over time and protect them from Taliban tax agents we can win over population center.

I'm deeply suspect of the poppy blight, that sounds like agent orange all over again.
posted by humanfont at 9:28 AM on August 12, 2010


I'm deeply suspect of the poppy blight, that sounds like agent orange all over again.

Maybe. However, Papaver as a species is subject to many bacterial, viral, and fungal pathologies. In the 19th century there were several devastating blights that damaged the opium crops in India. These blights were well documented by British scientists, since at the time the opium trade was entirely monopolized by the English. Crop damage like this is not unheard of, though naturally spreading the rumor that the US is behind it can only make things worse for US-Afghan relations.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:07 AM on August 12, 2010


There is a genetically modified fungus that has been studied as a way to get rid of drug crops, originally marijuana-- I wrote about it for the late, lamented Feed, reposted here.

I wrote about why we should buy Afghan opium and use it to relieve pain in the developing world for the New York Times, here.

Basically, America's insane drug policy means that people dying of cancer and AIDS in most poor countries cannot even get morphine because to please us, it is so heavily regulated that it's unavailable. Rich people can get expensive Pharma drugs like Oxycontin-- but the poor die in agony for lack of extremely cheap generic opiates. Here's a horrifying story from Time about someone going to jail for years for getting heroin from the street for a dying relative.

There's no reason not to do this other than politics.
posted by Maias at 5:24 PM on August 12, 2010 [1 favorite]


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