Friday, March 25, 2005

Most farmers around the world don't sell to criminal cartels -- are they a model for Afghanistan?

On the news of reports that our military is going to get involved in suppressing opium production in Afghanistan, Matt Yglesias worries about the importance of that industry to the rebuilding and stability of that country and our man in Kabul, Hamid Karzai:

WAR ON TERROR, MEET WAR ON DRUGS. The U.S. military is going to start getting more involved in the efforts of the Afghan government to crack down on the cultivation of poppies and the production of opium and heroin. There's no question that the burgeoning drug trade is the single biggest threat to Afghanistan's stability and possible emergence as a democracy. Concentrating vast wealth (by Afghan standards) in the hands of the leaders of criminal enterprises can only prevent the emergence of a real state infrastructure and a meaningful politics.

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. Afghan farmers need to be able to sell something for export in order to earn money. The problem here is, in part, one of inadequate development aid. But the terms of trade are also important -- if the rich world is serious about bringing stability to Afghanistan, we need to make sure that legitimate agricultural products can be brought to market at prices that the people who have money will pay.

Archer Daniels Midland notwithstanding, most farmers around the world don't go to market to concentrate vast wealth in the hands of a few corrupt middlemen. Farmers presumably sell opium for good economic reasons, and would be even happier if a competitive marketplace let them sell to someone other than oligopolistic or monopolistic criminals. If "the rich world" were "serious about bringing stability to Afghanistan," letting Afghan farmers grow their cash crops of choice -- say, opium poppies -- might be a terrific way to do it. In other words, our "war on drugs" is handicapping our "war on terror." Maybe cracking down on the opium trade involves the right set of trade-offs -- hey, perhaps interdicting supply at the start of the distribution chain is a terrific way of suppressing demand in First World cities, though one suspects that the choice has something to do with a preference for shooting up Third World countries instead of attacking the end users' demand in other ways -- but let's not assume that our policy is serving the interests of Afghan farmers, or even ourselves.

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