Afghanistan's (and Our) Dumb War on Drugs (Veiled Choice: The Best of Reason Pitch)

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Writing in Slate last week, Christopher Hitchens zeroes in on the likely effect of current U.S. policy toward poppies in Afghanistan:

[W]e learned from the New York Times of Dec. 11, in a front-page article bylined by Eric Schmitt, that a secret "assessment" by Lt. Gen. David Barno, the senior American officer in the country, has concluded that poppy cultivation is the main threat to the creation of a decent society, and the main avenue by which former Taliban and al-Qaida forces can hope to return from their crushing defeat.

Any attentive reading of the report, however, shows that it is the campaign against poppy cultivation that constitutes the threat. This point was underlined, perhaps coincidentally, by an op-ed essay in the same edition of the Times, written by Afghanistan's tireless and talented finance minister, Ashraf Ghani. "Today," he wrote, "many Afghans believe that it is not drugs, but an ill-conceived war on drugs that threatens their economy and nascent democracy" (my italics). Ghani went on to point out that a third of Afghanistan's GDP depends on the crop and that "destroying that trade without offering our farmers a genuine alternative livelihood has the potential to undo the embryonic economic gains of the past three years." As he further emphasized, these highly undesirable consequences arise from the control of the trade by a "mafia" with links to Islamic nihilism.

Whole story here.

If you find Hitchens' judgment compelling and interesting, consider this: He wrote the intro to our new anthology, Choice: The Best of Reason, which pulls together our greatest hits of the past decade into one handy-dandy volume. "I find that Reason," he notes, "keeps my…arteries from hardening, or from flooding with adrenaline out of sheer irritation, because in the face of arbitrary power and flock-like comformism it continues to ask, in a polite but firm tone of voice, not only 'why?' but 'why not?'"

Go here to buy Choice in hardcover (just $16.97 at Amazon) and paperback ($10.47)–and to get a great deal on Reason subscriptions (for a limited time, as low as $19.95 for a year plus the anthology).

NEXT: Strike Two (Maybe Three) on DC Baseball

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  1. Christopher Hitchens kicks ass.

  2. The best part of reading Hitch is the readers’ comments forum on Slate. He is read by many and loved by few. May he continue to piss off Slaters for many years.

  3. I’m not a fan of his apologies for the Iraq war, but I have to admire his inconoclasm and ability to turn a phrase. Anyone with the chutzpah to go after Mother Teresa and Ghandi–convincingly, in the former case–has my admiration.

  4. “Yea, and in the end times it shall come to pass that a libertarian magazine shall publish an anthology, and the preface thereto shall be written by a marxist. Verily, dogs and cats shall live together…”

  5. Hitch says as many overtly stupid things as he does well reasoned. This particular point (i.e. drugs are not the problem, the War On Drugs is the problem) is one of those that strikes me as painfully obvious and of paramount priority, yet remains the most unlikely of scenarios.

    I don’t find the suggestion that we offer the farmers a “genuine alternative livelihood” very enlightened. That’s exactly the policy that produced the Taliban.

  6. If I recall correctly, Hitchens is also well known for his defense of Pol Pot.

  7. What the hell is islamic nihilism? We’re not fighting Farid Ud-Din Attar over there. These people are anything but nihilist.

  8. Gary,

    A google search came up with Hitchen’s defense of Chomsky against charges of defending Pol Pot, but nothing with Hitchens defending Pol Pot. Do you have any sources I could look up? Thanks.

  9. Les,

    The text most people refer to is Hitchens defense of Chomsky in The Chorus and the Cassandra.

    No, he did not “defend Pol Pot” but he did defend Chomsky’s writings on the matter, which basically attempt to distort or minimize the Khmer Rouge’s crimes.

  10. Les,

    Well, I maybe remembering incorrectly (that’s why I so equivocal on the matter). However, if what you say is correct, that doesn’t make Hitchens look much better (though admittedly Chomsky’s role as defender of the Khmer Rouge is fairly contested).

    http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/chomsky.htm

  11. Pavel,

    A response to Hitchens’ article: http://www.mekong.net/cambodia/hitchens.htm

  12. Gary,

    That’s where my link goes actually.

    That’s a great site in general, too.

  13. Pavel,

    Yes, I learned a lot about this Hitchens-Chomsky issue reading those articles. I call that a successful day. 🙂

  14. If the war on drugs were ended worldwide, it would pull the rug from under the poppy farmers, but it would put the carpet biz back under them?
    And kids standing on the corners near where I live selling crack would be forced to seek other employment.
    In both cases, at least we’re talking about entrepreneurial folks who should land on their feet. It wouldn’t be like kicking senior citizens out of rest homes.
    Then politicians could better focus on eliminating the minimum wage laws (to help unemployed drug dealers ease back into legal employment) and farm subsidies that hurt foreign farmers.

  15. How veiled can the pitch be when there’s a paranthetical remark about the pitch in the fucking title of post? Jesus Christ.

  16. O’Reilly,
    When we’re thinking of Afghanistan, all we see are veils. They’re sexy, eh?

  17. It seems incorrect to cite “the war on drugs” as the major problem in Afghanistan when the war on drugs is the only thing making opium poppies a lucrative cash crop for them in the first place. I guarantee you that any Afghan poppy farmer with a basic understanding of supply and demand is strongly in favor of the nearly worldwide prohibition on drugs — it’s the “Baptists and bootleggers” phenomenon all over again.

    From Afghanistan’s point of view, the economic difference between legalizing drugs and forbidding the growing of poppies is minimal — either option would dramatically reduce their GNP. The best-case scenario for Afghanistan is the worst-case scenario for everyone else: for opium and its derivatives to remain illegal, but for Afghanistan to be allowed to grow poppies. There really is no quick fix here — the only real solution is to help improve the non-agricultural aspects of Afghanistan’s economy until it is no longer so dependent on the black market in opium derivatives.

  18. Dan,
    Not to be rude, and, remember, I’m deep into happy hour here, but you have taken this thread back to square one by outlining the obvious.

    I will ax you this: What do you propose to help improve the non-agricultural aspects of Afghanistan’s economy?

  19. Dan-

    I agree that from the perspective of an Afghan opium grower, and from the short term perspective of Afghans working in other sectors (who nonetheless benefit at least indirectly from the opium trade), banning opium everywhere except Afghanistan is the best way to go: It keeps the market price up, but also enables Afghans to grow a high-priced crop without interference.

    However, one could make a good argument that in the long term legalizing opium outside Afghanistan is best for Afghans not working in the opium trade. Nations heavily dependent on a single industry tend, on average, to be less free than nations with diversified economies. In the Persian Gulf that means rule of the royals. In “banana republics” it meant the rule of despots who were cozy with semi-feudal landowners. In Afghanistan it means the rule of gangsters and warlords plugged into the black market.

    The problem, of course, is that it is in almost nobody’s short-term interest to make the change to a diver. So the change will have to be “forced” on Afghanistan when western nations grow tired of the domestic problems caused by drug prohibition.

    I’m not holding my breath for that to happen.

  20. thoreau,

    I’m open to the idea that legalizing opium throughout the world would benefit Afghanistan, if only because I already support such legalization and would like to believe that it would solve all sorts of extra problems.

    However, the United States doesn’t have the power to legalize opium throughout the world. Even if we legalized it, and convinced majorities of the people of the world’s democratic nations to go along, there are still plenty of dictatorships and authoritarian nations (Russia, China, much of the Middle East, etc) that aren’t likely to play ball. So there would still be a black market for opium, and Afghanistan would probably still keep producing it (especially since it’s located near most of the aforementioned dictatorships).

    Really, though, if we could manage to legalize drugs in the western world, I wouldn’t care too much what effect that had on Afghanistan. If it was good, good, but if it was bad, oh well.

  21. Dan-

    Point well taken. I’m optimistic that if opium were legalized in Europe then Afghanistan would undergo some positive changes. Most of the Afghan opium crop goes to western Europe because the Europeans have more money than the authoritarian nations that you mentioned. If the Europeans legalized then the Europeans would be able to find other sources and the Afghans would have to start selling to less affluent clients. This would inevitably shrink the funds available to gangsters and warlords, which would be (in the words of Martha Stewart) a good thing.

    OK. I just finished baking Christmas cookies. Time to sleep.

  22. Way to go on never missing a chance to promote Choice.

  23. Other than the spot on observation that a “Banana Republic” status isn’t good for Afghanistan in the long run, it should also be pointed out that along with prohibition comes direct assaults on the crop itself. Attempts to destroy the poppy crop do the most damage to lowly farmers, and have vanishing levels impact higher up on the ladder.

    To quote my favorite line from the brilliant original British miniseries Traffik. An Afghani says to a visiting British minister,”The CIA arms us, the DEA comes and tries to burn out our farms. America is never a problem as long as it’s fighting itself.”

    Roughly as true now as it’s ever been.

  24. “Even if we legalized it, and convinced majorities of the people of the world’s democratic nations to go along, there are still plenty of dictatorships and authoritarian nations (Russia, China, much of the Middle East, etc) that aren’t likely to play ball. So there would still be a black market for opium, and Afghanistan would probably still keep producing it (especially since it’s located near most of the aforementioned dictatorships).”

    Dan,
    I’d love to see a real economist take a crack at what you’re saying.
    As an amateur economist, I’d say, if the democratic “Western World” called a halt to the war on drugs, it would put Afghanistan out of the poppy business in short order.
    There would continue to be local situations in authoritarian nations where the price of drugs would be high relative to “the world price,” but that would be comparable to in Iraq where the black market price of gasoline is through the roof. These would be isolated and unusual and temporary situations.
    I can’t see how Afghanistan could be nimble enough to be a “boutique” black markets supplier when modern capitalist computer-using countries would be not only the primary producers of the product, but, also tough competition in the “boutique” arena.
    And look at being realistic about AIDS as a comparison. When the majority of “free” countries said we needed to get real about AIDS, see how short a time it has been before even China also began to see the light.

  25. Ruthless,

    Why would it “put Afghanistan out of the poppy business” if the western world legalized opium? It would certainly cut their profit margins, but Afghanistan would still remain a cheaper place to grow poppies than the western nations are.

    At least, unless the western nations followed their usual procedure, and provided subsidies for domestic poppy-growers and tariffs on foreign ones.

  26. Dan,
    I know nothing about the flower business, but what if the tulip growers in Holland allocated about half their acreage to poppies?

    And how much raw material would the world need in the first place after the US Coast Guard has been called off?

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