Small Wars Journal

Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North on Poppy

Lieutenant Colonel North on Poppy

By Allison Brown

Everyone has read by now that Afghanistan's poppy production is down for the second year running because the farmgate price is too low for farmers to bother planting. Production has become ever more concentrated in Helmand and other southern provinces where the national government has no hold. Oliver North (Blooming Financial Support at Fox News) does not address the dynamics of these changes, only a few current policing actions from a rather narrow, US- and militray-centric point of view.

Here are some shortcomings in North's presentation:

1. Unlike Colombian coca farmers and most of the poppy farmers in the Golden Triangle, relatively few of the poppy farmers in Afghanistan are isolated. Most Afgan poppy is grown in larger plantations adjacent to the urban centers of Helmand, Kandahar and two other southern provinces where there is favorable topography, irrigation, and anarchy. Isolated farmers in any Afghan region are statistically more likely to grow poppy because the crop provides good returns to water investment and because there is no other crop to sell from their land. [See my previous SWJ posts] In contrast, in other countries better local markets and better law enforcement push drug cropping farther away from urban centers.

2. The field in the photo is not typical of poppy fields in the south but more like the isolated fields of the north. Small, situated at the base of a hill to catch night fogs and underground water and lots of rocks. See the difference with this photo of Helmand (courtesy of the UK government.)

3. "... took down a heroin-hashish "bazaar" and bagged more than a dozen narco-terrorists." The article, like many others, makes no distinction between insurgents and criminals. Saying that all poppy profits go to terrorists is counterfactual.

4. "...the [Taliban] has derived newfound wealth from the heroin trade." The Taliban, like other Afghan criminals, have always been involved with drugs. The shift to in-country heroin processing is new.

5. The $70 million estimate is from the CIA, not UNODC, who put it at $125 million. The CIA and UN numbers are as well researched as these numbers can be and are not even close to each other. What these numbers, and others you might see, fail to factor in is the high cost of doing business in Afghanistan. Cars, fuel, personnel, security (yes, even the Taliban need security), farm inputs, bribes, management, marketing, etc. eat up the drug revenues and the remaining profit to spend on weapons and training is not nil, of course, but very much less. Methamphetamines are much more profitable.

6. The reported value of precursor chemicals includes ones used for methamphetamine production in addition to those used for heroin processing.

7. "This nexus of narcotics, crime and terror has prompted a dramatic change in allied strategy that provides new opportunities for success in Afghanistan." Well, no, the complete failure of the previous strategy prompted the change.

8. "DEA intelligence experts and a growing network of informants — something other U.S. agencies have been unable to duplicate — are now providing detailed "actionable" information; "target sets" that can be rapidly exploited in "capture-kill" missions." No other U.S. agencies are tasked this way so no other agency has duplicated DEA efforts. More interesting is DEA's past unwillingness to heed recommendations from "networks of informants" used by other agencies. The "hit the kingpins not the farmers" strategy was suggested as early as February 2004 Kenefick and Morgan in a think piece for USAID (and perhaps earlier from sources I do not know). The US has not pursued this strategy till now. The works of David Mansfield and his colleagues on lowering incentives to produce poppy are cited in previous posts on this site.

9. "Interdiction operations such as these are not being conducted in a U.S.-NATO vacuum. U.S. trainers are now deployed to train, mentor and advise Afghanistan's fledgling counter-narcotics police. The Afghan Sensitive Investigation Unit and National Interdiction Unit now number more than 275 law officers — many of whom accompany DEA agents and Spec Ops forces on raids". Mr. North neglects to mention that many, if not most, of these Afghan forces are trained by the British or by multi-national teams.

10. "The country still has only one paved highway and the near total collapse of basic infrastructure is indicative of how badly the U.N. and the "international donor community" have squandered billions here." Guess who the biggest international donor has been? Guess who has deemphasized infrastructure rehab?

And there are plenty of paved roads in Afghanistan just maybe none that Mr North considers a highway.

Allison Brown has over twenty-five years professional experience providing business development services to urban and rural development projects in developing economies. She is also a technical specialist on the use of agriculture and economic interventions in Counter Narcotics programs. Ms Brown in 2008 worked as the Counter Narcotics Advisor for the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock, Government of Afghanistan. In 2004-5 she was Team Leader of a worldwide impact evaluation of Alternative Development practices against drug crops for the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Ms Brown served as a USAID staff officer in Sri Lanka from 1987-1990 the height of the civil war.


anonymouser (not verified)

Mon, 09/14/2009 - 8:33am

You write: "Most Afgan poppy is grown in larger plantations adjacent to the urban centers of Helmand, Kandahar and two other southern provinces where there is favorable topography, irrigation, and anarchy."

I have one very basic comment: irrigation works, unlike other bits of infrastructure such as roads, do not survive a period of anarchy, simply because they need constant, qualified maintenance work from a relatively large and geographically dispersed group of people.

In other words, the regions where poppies are grown are not anarchic. Do not confuse the absence of a formal government with a lack of governance.