By Griffin W. Huschke, Mayme and Herb Frank Research Fellow
As the fighting season begins again in Afghanistan (Taliban fighters have already captured a provincial district in Eastern Afghanistan), it looks like the U.S. is again stepping into the debate about eradicating poppies in Southern Afghanistan. While this may not seem like that big of a deal compared to the other problems Afghanistan is facing—ya’know the corruption and insurgency–but the regional and domestic implications of Afghanistan opium production is huge. We talked before about opium in Afghanistan is a force multiplier for instability in the country—it finances insurgents, woos government officials into corruption, and is the root of the massive heroin epidemic that is ripping apart the social fabric of the country. Overall, it’s just really hard to rebuild a country when almost a tenth of your population are junkies.
But it’s not just street-level Afghans that are feeling the effects of poppy production. Afghan heroin is making it to markets as far away as London and is flooding neighboring countries, like Russia, with dirt cheap China White. This is causing a rift in the relationship between the U.S., which learned the hard way how counter-productive eradication is, and Russia, who is demanding ISAF start spraying defoliants on Afghanistan’s poppy crops. The Russian logic goes that if there are no poppy crops, how can heroin make its way to Moscow?
The All-Star Researchers and Analysts (if there were such a thing) make their bread and butter analyzing the second and third order effects of large scale policy. For instance, while the Russian logic seems pretty elegant, the repercussion from these actions could be potentially destabilizing, alienating poor farmers who are often impressed into growing that crop by insurgents or own land that is simply too poor to farm anything else. Often when you eradicate poppy crops, little kids starve and farmers start working for the Taliban, because there’s no other way to make money. The U.S. has also already tried eradication, and it pretty much failed.
The real challenge here is that the U.S. is trying to rebuild a country where Russia is trying to watch out for its own people. Russia washed its hands of Afghanistan decades ago, and history tells us that Russia’s leaders will (begrudgingly) let Afghanistan get taken over by crazed zealots. What’s important to Moscow though, is that Russia’s life expectancy ranks 135 in the world, and consumes the most heroin in the world. The trend lines are discouraging as well—there are 10 times the number of heroin addicts now than there were in 1990 (around 3 million on a country of 145 million), and opium is now a 54 billion dollar industry (for comparison, that’s more than U.S. film, book and music industries combined). From the Russian perspective, it’s hard to worry about the job security of Afghans who are infecting your people with one of the most addictive substances on earth. They just want their people off drugs by any means necessary.
The good news is that Russia and the U.S. seem to be talking this over, but both sides need to be willing to understand the other’s position before they can make any headway. The U.S. and other NATO countries need to get poppy production under control, but this can only be done by sensible policies that give poor farmers another way to make money.