The Least-Worst Option: Statebuilding in Afghanistan via Transforming the Narcotics Industry

By Graham Engel

“But war’s a game, which, were their subjects wise, Kings would not play at.” – William Cowper, The Task, V, The Winter Morning Walk, line 187.

While Canadian troops have been present in Afghanistan since at least 2001, present conditions suggest Canada will not be there much longer. Our current Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, is calling for an exit strategy1 while still assuring the US that we will support them in their latest troop-surge, which gives the impression that Canada’s decision to stay in Afghanistan is not one made in Ottawa. This is reemphasized by John Foster, who reminds us that “as part of the International Security Assistance Forces and the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom, Canada has supported US interests in Afghanistan (2)” and will likely do so until told otherwise. The amalgamation of forces are in Afghanistan to address the failed state that it is, and hope to institute a stable and productive apparatus so that Western forces can leave, and the habitual relations between nations can resume; in Afghanistan’s case, habitual relations refer to transport in trade goods and a stable foothold for NATO allies in that region of the world. Building the state of Afghanistan is plagued with enough obstacles to make our stay there ambiguously protracted, and a stay of questionable worth. Yet, this paper will argue not only for prolonged Canadian presence in Afghanistan, but will argue that transforming the drug economy should be their central preoccupation, as it may be the linchpin to a sustaining Afghan state.

Ideally, Canada would need not stay in Afghanistan. The Bonn agreements have established a globally-recognized government, the people have voted their representatives into power, and the task of rebuilding has begun. In the words of Captain Nichola Goddard, whom died on our behalf in Afghanistan, these governments are a reflection of the desires of the people.

    “The Afghan people have chosen who will lead them. Their new government is striving to make Afghanistan a better place. I had never truly appreciated the awesome power of a democratic government before. We are here to assist the legitimate and democratically elected government (Outside the Wire, 57).”

Yet, despite Western attestations that the Afghan people have self-selected leadership, real Afghani’s describe the situation in other words. Malalai Joya is an outspoken female politician from Afghanistan, a feat rare enough in itself, but also compounded by her outspoken critique of those who hold power in her country. According to Joya, “…80% of the members of the Afghan parliament are warlords, drug lords, and criminals. The drug lords are ministers, governors, commanders, MPs, and ambassadors; [President] Karzai continues to put these criminals in high official posts and the Afghan people are hostages in their hands (230).” Not only are corruption (Kreutzmann 2007; Berdal 2009), entrenched criminality (Cornell 2007), and political violence (Aras and Toktas 2008) the foundation of the state of Afghanistan, but the international community is complicit in it, accepting its current composition as long as this government is serving Western interests. These individuals are power-holders in the country, those whom fought with the ISAF to defeat the Taliban, and are not really products of a functioning democratic system, but rewards for assistance.

A shuffling of powers such as this is not new in Afghanistan. Indeed, as a country which has been exploited as part of the ‘Great Game’ since it was first recognized, contemporary global history has seen Britain, the US, Russia/USSR, and Pakistan all in some way seek influence on the state. Furthermore, para-state actors in the form of al-Qaeda and now the deposed-Taliban seek to exert their influence on the governance structure of this former Durrani2 state. Operating from the North West Frontier Provinces (NWFP) of Pakistan, a region which is violently opposed to external governance structures (and have been historically unmanageable; Omranj 2009; Spencer 2009), extremists are destabilizing not only Afghanistan, but Pakistan as well. This spawns fears of a Talibanized Pakistan (Spencer 2009), as that states incumbent government has neglected to persecute them in their NWFP’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), leaving the possibility open that they may be able to spread all the way to Islamabad.

The issue of a failing Pakistan, a tenuous Afghanistan, and the criminality and corruption which plagues them become compounded by narcotics production and sale. The difficulty of this situation is how entrenched the narco-economy has become, which is likely a direct result of decades of war and degrading infrastructure. Where “more than 70% of the people live below the poverty line” (Aras and Toktas, 7), those who are able to cultivate opium in Afghanistan do. The industry is estimated to be worth US 2.7$ B., and is roughly 52% of the Afghan GDP (Kreutzmann 2009), involving an estimated 3.3 million Afghani’s directly (Berdal 2009). Farmers profit from producing a cash crop which nets $90/kg, substantially better than many of the other alternatives provided3, though it should be said that it is at least suspected that many farmers are forced into opium production. Kreutzmann says “the farmers are often compelled to cultivate poppy and receive only a nominal share of the profits” (6), yet according to Maloney, tribal leaders become involved in negotiations for the wider area, needing to “take a cut of the action to permit the cultivation to be done” (9), as it is a profitable enterprise not to be turned down lightly by any community. While this may represent a “possibility of rising from their abject poverty” (Van Ham, and Kamminga, 2), this seductive enterprise comes with the associated risks of an illicit economy, that being corruption, conflict, and entrenched interests who would seek to maintain this social order.

Domestically in Afghanistan, ties to the Drug Trade extend as far up as the President’s brother, and can realistically be found in many of the state institutions. Berdal states that poppy-growing districts are exposed to endemic corruption, with police posts being “awarded through bidding process[es], with prices reaching as high as $100,000 for a six-month appointment to a position with a monthly salary of $60 (6)”. This is because turning a blind eye to the growth, processing, and transport of opium is highly lucrative due to the bribery that befalls one at that station. Not only is regional governance compromised, but international governance too. The processing and transport phases of opium production, where the real profits are to be made, are not based in Afghanistan, but are “…variably and inextricably linked at multiple levels to the political and economic processes and people that constitute the nation-state of Pakistan – and have been for some decades (Maloney 11).” In the uncontrolled and volatile NWFP’s, the drug processing occurs, and from there are shipped to many regional, and international, clients. These networks “have been players in that scene for decades – far longer than Al Qaeda and the Taliban have existed as organizations (ibid.)”, with these inter-linkages extending as high as the Pakistani Army’s National Logistics Cell (ibid.). Beyond lining pockets and providing incomes for those who need it, illicit trades are notorious for providing armaments to para-state organizations (Aras and Toktas; Kreutzmann). Thus we see in Afghanistan “a power struggle… in which regional warlords challenge the central authority, in which rebels, guerrilla fighters and/or Mujaheddin finance their wars against the center with capital returns from poppy cultivation (Kreutzmann 5).”

Kreutzmann says that “the drug-economy…enables regional leaders to execute semi-independent rule and to establish quasi-autonomous territories under their jurisdiction and economic control (7)”, which is exacerbated by regional interests in this social structure. Drug-moneys undermine faith in the government, corrupt legal authority, enable sub-state social structuring, and yet are absolutely necessary for many Afghani’s to live upon. Further, a historical legacy of turmoil leads to a tribal predisposition to resolving conflicts via violence and usurpation, targeting enemies and praising allies, of acting as their own law instead of following a central governments (Cornell 2007; Omrani 2009). Making it more difficult still are international sanctions against involvement in drug economies, which will force the hand of any internationally recognized government, ultimately driving producers to groups such as the Taliban (Van Ham, Kamminga, 5). Western domestic policy also causes a narrow range of actions to be taken, as permissiveness (of cultivation so as not to alienate rural Afghani’s), transformation, or anything that is not explicitly eradication is met with incredulity and political sanction at home. Dissolving this knot is the key element to Afghan stability.

The only means of eliminating the lucrative narcotics market would be full-out legalization, yet this is not likely to happen, leaving the next best solution to lie in transforming the Afghan opium crop into a legitimate medical morphine industry. While it is nowhere near as lucrative as the illicit trade, growers will find themselves offered a chance to earn a good livelihood and to embrace a peace-economy. Afghanistan possesses the appropriate expertise and infrastructure to begin licensed poppy-growing for morphine and codeine, creating “a humanitarian brand of Afghan morphine and codeine…marketed in developing countries that have a serious shortage of those medicines.” (Van Ham, and Kamminga 6). Christopher Hitchens agrees with this idea, by saying that “the revenue that now goes to drug lords and terrorists could be applied straight to Afghanistan’s reconstruction, while weakening those who benefit from an artificially created monopoly (Foreign Policy, “Legalize It”, May/June 2007).”

Not only would opium be transformed, but the marijuana industry could transfigure into a hemp food and textiles economy. Afghanistan is a prime source of the worlds hashish supply (as seen in Cpl. Pagnacco’s Afghan photos), an industry not as lucrative as opium, but surely profitable. If the conditions are right to grow cannabis for smoking, then the conditions are certainly capable of growing hemp for sustenance. Hemp’s high-nutritive value (Kylstra 2009; Callaway 2004) can be used to ensure a higher quality of life for those whom are brought into the fold of the centralized Afghani state, as marijuana growers would become the food supply for the burgeoning state. When processed, the fibrous material could be used to provide a subsidized source of fabric for all state uniforms – making those uniforms creates labor which could be done by any one in need of a job.

Following the path of transformation offers minimal change for the average Afghani, an opportunity to join a legal enterprise, and the opportunity for local stake-holders to integrate into the central state. Those who are profiting the most from the shadow-economy could be incorporated as a part of this apparatus, as plantation managers or members of the ministry of Medical Morphine or Textiles (becoming no more corrupt than Western politicians); those whom are using it to fund insurgencies would refuse this peace-building option, thus extricating themselves from the legitimacy they experienced as protector of their locales livelihood. Then the state, with its enforcement apparatus, has reason to push them out. Johnathan Goodhand calls this ‘the border effect’, where “through a process of either co-opting or crushing rural outlaws in frontier regions, states…strengthened their capacities (3)” by becoming a force capable of instituting rule of law. These ‘brigands’ would still attempt to coerce communities into funding them through opium cultivation, but “the solution to the dilemma of security and stability lies in the fact that the majority of people in Afghanistan do not want the Taliban regime to return (Aras, and Toktas 10).” If the Afghani people want an established, legal state, then they will stand up to adversity for one. This, coupled with the transit revenue that will be generated by the Turkmenistan pipeline (US$160m./year – Foster 2008), may see the Afghan state in a position to grow and improve the lot of its people.

Critiques say that such a proposal would never work, as no control mechanism exists to ensure only licit poppy/cannabis production is occurring (Berdal), to which it should be said that Afghanistan is a state which is rebuilding and subsequently lacks many mechanisms – just because it fails to have an appropriate domestic monitoring apparatus is no reason to turn down a transformative opportunity that may win many Afghani’s over to the side of the central government. A more dangerous critique will be those disenfranchised regional operant’s whom have been profiting from lawless Afghanistan ‘forever’. Concerted resistance from outside Afghanistan’s borders could see the beginning of interstate conflict with Pakistan, or with peoples of the FATA’s of Pakistan’s NWFP. Another legitimate concern is whether this is approvable by Muslim law, yet Van Ham and Kamminga say “the cultivation of opium [is allowed] when it does not harm but rather benefits society” (10), and in a case such as this, it does.

Transforming drug economies in order to preserve livelihoods while creating new national industries which are enforceable through a legitimate state-coercive apparatus is an exercise in political imagination. The underlying theme of contemplating the Afghanistan state is that, since 1839, the West has been projecting their norms and value-structures onto an area which has resisted them from their inception. While strategies can be suggested, it is like asking “how can we make this work?” when instead we should be asking “what has been work in Afghanistan?” Every interventionist strategy since the British Colonial era has been self-serving and has created blowback which has haunted the West to this day, and Canada’s current involvement is no exception. While this paper has suggested a means by which a state could be built, it has been suggested with the understanding that the strategies being discussed in the popular media involve a troop-surge, an aspiration that Afghanistan will work on its own, and then a retreat by Western forces. Canada should not even be there, as it is not our place to tell the world what to do, but since we are there, the least-worst option would be to build something that could be legitimately sustainable. To do otherwise would be akin to playing a game one intended to lose.

Works Cited

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    Berdal, Mats. ‘Chapter Three: The Opium Trade.’ Building Peace after War. Routledge Publishing. London, UK. 2009.
    Callaway, J.C. “Hempseed as a Nutritional Resource: An Overview”. Euphytica. Vol. 140, 65-72. 2004. Kluwer Academic Publishers. The Netherlands.
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