Tag Archive for 'Afghanistan'


Farm subsidies promote terrorism

Well, maybe not directly, but it bears thinking about. It’s not a new idea, either, but I thought I’d put it out there anyway …

US and European farm subsidies artificially suppress world crop prices by causing American and European farmers to produce more than they profitably otherwise could. By the World Bank’s estimates, the prices of course grains, rice and wheat would rise by between 4% and 7% relative to other prices if all subsidies and other impediments to trade were removed (hat tip: Dani Rodrik).

That means that farmers in places like Afghanistan turn to other crops like poppies (for heroin). Since drugs are illegal, the farmers can only sell their crops through black (well, in Afghanistan, grey) markets that are controlled, America tells us, by people who support and funnel profits to the Taliban and al-Qa’ida.

Those Afghani farmers don’t really care what they grow. They just want to make a profit, like anybody else. How do we know this? Because when the price of crops goes up for other reasons, they happily started switching to planting wheat:

In parts of Helmand Afghan farmers are this year sowing wheat instead of poppy – not because they have suddenly been converted to the argument that producing heroin is not in the national interest.

Market forces have been the deciding factor – with wheat prices doubling in the past year, and the street price of heroin falling, it is now more cost effective to grow wheat.

So there you have it. If America was serious about fighting drugs and terrorism, it would cut it’s farm subsidies.


John Pilger versus “the great game”

John Pilger (biography on Wikipedia) has a new piece out in the New Statesman, “The ‘good war’ is a bad war.” This is the central part of his essay:

The truth about the “good war” is to be found in compelling evidence that the 2001 invasion, widely supported in the west as a justifiable response to the 11 September attacks, was actually planned two months prior to 9/11 and that the most pressing problem for Washington was not the Taliban’s links with Osama Bin Laden, but the prospect of the Taliban mullahs losing control of Afghanistan to less reliable mujahedin factions, led by warlords who had been funded and armed by the CIA to fight America’s proxy war against the Soviet occupiers in the 1980s. Known as the Northern Alliance, these mujahedin had been largely a creation of Washington, which believed the “jihadi card” could be used to bring down the Soviet Union. The Taliban were a product of this and, during the Clinton years, they were admired for their “discipline”. Or, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “[the Taliban] are the players most capable of achieving peace in Afghanistan at this moment in history”.

The “moment in history” was a secret memorandum of understanding the mullahs had signed with the Clinton administration on the pipeline deal. However, by the late 1990s, the Northern Alliance had encroached further and further on territory controlled by the Taliban, whom, as a result, were deemed in Washington to lack the “stability” required of such an important client. It was the consistency of this client relationship that had been a prerequisite of US support, regardless of the Taliban’s aversion to human rights. (Asked about this, a state department briefer had predicted that “the Taliban will develop like the Saudis did”, with a pro-American economy, no democracy and “lots of sharia law”, which meant the legalised persecution of women. “We can live with that,” he said.)

By early 2001, convinced it was the presence of Osama Bin Laden that was souring their relationship with Washington, the Taliban tried to get rid of him. Under a deal negotiated by the leaders of Pakistan’s two Islamic parties, Bin Laden was to be held under house arrest in Peshawar. A tribunal of clerics would then hear evidence against him and decide whether to try him or hand him over to the Americans. Whether or not this would have happened, Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf vetoed the plan. According to the then Pakistani foreign minister, Niaz Naik, a senior US diplomat told him on 21 July 2001 that it had been decided to dispense with the Taliban “under a carpet of bombs”.

That is fascinating stuff. I am glad that people like Pilger exist as journalists because he really does push to uncover the truth. Any lie by any government is shameful. Nevertheless, while I am happy to accept the facts that Pilger presents as true, it’s difficult to read this article and to know what he actually wants other than to continue his vociferous criticism of Western foreign policy and that of the United States in particular.

On the one hand, he highlights above some of the awful aspects of an Afghanistan ruled (let’s not say governed) by the Taliban: no democracy, no freedom of religion, little (if any) freedom of speech, the utter subjugation of women, an economy based on the extraction and capture of wealth. On the other hand, he later speaks of the …

… historic ban on opium production that the Taliban regime had achieved. A UN official in Kabul described the ban to me as “a modern miracle”. The miracle was quickly rescinded. As a reward for supporting the Karzai “democracy”, the Americans allowed Northern Alliance warlords to replant the country’s entire opium crop in 2002. Twenty-eight out of the 32 provinces instantly went under cultivation.

But he doesn’t bother noting that the Taliban were only able to enforce their ban by killing anyone who violated it. I’m pretty sure that Pilger opposes the death penalty. I’m absolutely certain that he opposes it when it’s instigated without any recourse to defence in a fair trial.

I agree entirely with Pilger that the main priorities of the U.S. in looking at other countries have been political stability and economic liberalism, with the rule of law being a distant third and anything else almost entirely off the radar. I likewise agree that this is principally because these represent minimum conditions for the inevitably large U.S. companies to do business in those countries. I say “inevitably” because small U.S. companies are not in a position to invest internationally. Pilger views this as a modern form of imperialism. It’s a tempting position, but I tend to think of it more as the U.S. looking out for it’s own and leaving other countries to sort out their own particular rights and values. It is not non-interventionism, but a sort of ideally-minimal-but-occasionally-dramatic-interventionism.

I would understand if Pilger thought that the West ought to promote the good things it has aspired to itself: women’s rights, religious freedom, the welfare state and so forth. But Pilger is apparantly against humanitarian intervention, which he describes as the work of the ascendant, “narcissistic, war-loving wing” of liberalism, so I am again left confused as to what he wants the West to actually do. Does he want complete isolation?

Let me put it this way: Zimbabwe is in a terrible state. From once being described as the “bread-basket of Africa,” it is now the basket-case of the continent. It’s inflation is so high as to become unmeasurable. A third of it’s population has fled the country. It has no democracy. The opposition, when they attempt to rally, is beaten. For it’s part, the West has imposed sanctions, but China has happily handed truckloads of cash to Mugabe’s regime in exchange for Zimbabwe’s natural resources. What does John Pilger think the foreign policy of the U.S.A., the U.K. and the rest of the West ought to be towards Zimbabwe?


Afghan opium production (Updated)

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has just released their latest report, including details on opium production in Afghanistan. Here are a few of the statistics:

2006 Year-on-year difference 2007
Net opium poppy cultivation 165,000 ha +17% 193,000 ha
In per cent of agricultural land 3.65% 4.27%
Eradication 15,300 ha +24% 19,047 ha
Weighted average opium yield 37.0 kg/ha +15% 42.5 kg/ha
Potential production of opium 6,100 mt +34% 8,200 mt
In percent of global production 92% 93%
Number of households involved in opium cultivation 448,000 +14% 509,000
Afghanistan GDP US$ 6.7 billion +12% US$ 7.5 billion
Afghanistan GDP per capita US$ 290 +7% US$ 310
Total farm-gate value of opium in per cent of GDP 11% 13%
Indicative gross income from opium per ha US$ 4,600 +13% US$ 5,200
Indicative gross income from wheat per ha US$ 530 +3% US$ 546

Make sure you read that correctly: Area under cultivation is up 17% and area eradicated is up 24%. That might make you think (as it did me originally) that the total area producing is down, but you’d be wrong … the 17% was on a huge area and the 24% was on a tiny area. Net productive area went from 149,700 ha to 173,953 ha — an increase of 16%. On top of that, yield per hectare is up 15%, so overall output is up 34%.

GDP/capita is US$310 and — assuming that your crop isn’t eradicated by the US — income from growing opium poppy is US$5,200 per hectare (or $US2,100 per acre). That’s an awfully big incentive. On top of all that, I understand that one of the big appeals of growing poppy is that opium has an extremely high value per unit volume and per unit weight, which are important considerations for a farmer living in a country with very low-quality and high-cost transportation infrastructure.

I wonder how they got the yield up so quickly? Was it improved infrastructure (watering systems), the dedication of better quality land to poppy cultivation, better inputs (fertilizer) or something else? Whatever the answer, that looks to me to be fairly serious evidence of planned investment. These farmers are not just doing this on the side.

This would be a good time to point readers to this opinion piece by Willem Buiter (blog, NBER, LSE) . The discussion by other FT contributors is also well worth reading. Here’s a taster from the first paragraph so you know what he’s saying:

As an economist with a strong commitment to personal liberty and responsibility, my preference would be to see all illegal drugs legalised. The only exception would be substances whose consumption leads to behaviour likely to cause material harm to others.

Further update (30 Aug):

The Economist has produced this graph to illustrate world opium production since 1990:

[ Image removed because it was messing with my site. Click on the Economist link to see it ]