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Just Say Nothing

The Second Bush Administration’s Curious Silence About the Most Important Crop Report of 2004

by John Hickman

The ugly truth is that Afghanistan’s opium boom and the resulting flood of cheap heroin in Western Europe appears to serve important, if distasteful, foreign policy purposes.
The good economic news from Afghanistan is that its producers now dominate a major commodity export market. Impressive returns on investment and high growth potential have made the commodity the main engine for economic development in what official Washington likes to call the “world’s newest democracy.” The bad news is that the commodity in question is opium.

According to the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2004, the latest in the series of annual publications of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the country will have produced an astonishing 87% of the planet’s entire opium crop this year, up from 76% in 2003. Total opium production soared to 4,200 metric tons in 2004, surpassing the previous year’s record-breaking 3,600 metric tons.

Afghanistan’s opium boom is wide as well as deep. Commercial growing expanded to all 32 provinces of Afghanistan in 2004, an increase from 28 provinces the year before. Under the Taliban, opium growing was concentrated in the predominantly ethnic Pashtun provinces of southern and southeastern Afghanistan. Now farmers in the northern provinces where ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks are the majorities are also raising the cash crop that earns 12 times the income per hectare of wheat. What’s driving this switch to opium is obvious. The return on investment is high and enforcement of laws against opium growing is effectively non-existent. Some 356,000 Afghani farm households, or roughly 10% of the population, depend on the crop that now accounts for the equivalent of 60% of the country’s entire Gross Domestic Product.

Afghanistan's total opium production soared to 4,200 metric tons in 2004, surpassing the previous year’s record-breaking 3,600 metric tons.

Opium production has become so successful that average farm gate prices for raw opium have actually fallen by more than half since last year, so that a kilogram of dry opium now fetches about $142. Despite declining producer prices, the total value of production increased from an estimated $2.3 billion in 2003 to $2.8 billion in 2004, with middle men taking roughly 80% of total earnings. That’s actually a better split for opium growers than for growers of legal crops like coffee and cacao. Coffee growers in Latin America and cacao growers in West Africa receive only tiny fractions of the total value derived in sales of these crops.

The single most interesting aspect of the United Nations opium crop report is the silence with which it was greeted by the White House. Explanation is in order when the second Bush administration passes on such a splendid opportunity to moralize.

Most of the heroin produced from all that opium is fueling criminality in Western Europe and Central Asia rather than the United States. Simply put: it’s someone else’s problem. There is also an ideological payoff from the flood of cheap heroin in Western Europe. News stories of the social and health effects of heroin addiction provide the Christian Right-- the administration’s ideological junior partners —another reason to denounce the supposed immorality of secular, socially democratic “Old” Europe. Another part of the explanation is that the opium boom is an inexpensive substitute for legitimate economic development. To date, most of the economic development projects funded by the United States in Afghanistan have involved agriculture and road building, priorities no doubt pleasing to the drug traffickers. Rehabilitated irrigation systems and free chemical fertilizer was meant to foster wheat production but is easily diverted to opium growing. The probable effect of the Kabul-Kandahar-Heart highway project is all too obvious. The problem with real economic development projects--creating income alternatives to opium--is that they would be expensive.

What’s driving the switch from wheat to opium is obvious. The return on investment is high and enforcement of laws against opium growing is effectively non-existent.

The final part of the explanation is that all that opium is being grown in Afghanistan.

Official Washington normally applies different norms of international behavior to its client states than to its adversaries, but previous administrations would at least have gone through the motions of appearing dismayed by this news. That the foreign policy double standards of the current administration are more obvious than those of previous administrations signals arrogance rather than honesty. Little imagination is needed to picture the neo-conservative clique infesting the Pentagon and Office of Vice President describing a comparable bumper crop of opium in Iran or North Korea as a casus belli.

Moreover, Afghanistan remains an especially dependent client state. The USmilitary is already stretched thin as it tries to impose a government in Iraq. Deploying additional American soldiers to join the 18,000 already in Afghanistan would be difficult. The Western European countries, Germany in particular, which have contributed units to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), have resisted proposed permanent large-scale troop deployments outside Kabul.

The ugly truth is that Afghanistan’s opium boom and the resulting flood of cheap heroin in Western Europe appears to serve important, if distasteful, foreign policy purposes. Opium growing keeps the Afghanis out of more serious mischief. Better they engage in organized crime than Islamist terrorism. The military deployments which would be needed to give Afghanistan a stable, legitimate government and the capital investments that would be necessary to put it on the path to industrialization are being used elsewhere, in Iraq. Dealing with Afghanistan remains an afterthought, the perennial lower priority in the foreign policy interests of the US and the other powers.

John Hickman is Associate Professor of Government in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

Copyright © 2004 The Baltimore Chronicle. All rights reserved.

Republication or redistribution of Baltimore Chronicle content is expressly prohibited without their prior written consent.

This story was published on December 17, 2004.

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