“We understand that opium is bad,” he says. “All drugs are bad. But, it’s difficult for us seeing a neighbor with a new car when we are riding bicycles. So, we have to do this to have a better life.”
That quote is from a 27-year-old named Abdullah; his family grows opium (despite knowing it’s bad) and can generate about $9,000 per year from 150 pounds of the crop. That’s 4x what they can make from any other crop they have the option to produce.
Billions are being spent (mostly by the ‘West,’ i.e. the United States) to combat opium production, and yet … it’s at record highs. Consider this: a farmer will get about 41 cents for one kilogram of wheat; one kilogram of dry opium will yield that same farmer $160-$200. What decision would you make in that situation? Factor in the increases in the demand and the greater role of the insurgency in areas like Afghanistan, and you can see why there’s been a 36 percent spike in production in just the past year.
This has been described as “the elephant in the room,” “a failure,” and a way for cheap heroin to “flood” the UK. Here’s part of the issue: Afghan-focused scholars try to view the period from 2015-2024 as the “transformation decade” for that area. It’s a lot harder for governments to take more control and stabilize certain regions if (a) this is the only true option for farmers and (b) the Taliban and other insurgencies are making about $150 million per year off the trade. That just bolsters the illicit side.
President Obama has a lot on his plate right now, including the seemingly massive failure of his signature legislation, but … at some point, decisions do need to be made on Afghanistan. We got in there and we did what we did, but we cannot transition out of there and leave the place as a narco-state. That’s likely not good for anyone involved, minus mid-to-high level Taliban officials. It could be disastrous for European 20-somethings.
Afghan police are being drawn to the trade, the entire thing seems like a political debacle, DEA agents have lost their life, a child bride problem has grown, and then there’s the whole argument about whether the U.S. is protecting the drug fields.
People are, understandably, pissed:
Here’s the thing, at least as I see it: when you take any entry-level economics course, and you sit down in that first class, almost invariably a teacher will tell you that economics is ultimately the study of either choices or decisions that people make and prioritize. I think — although I could be wrong, because the first time I took Micro I bombed it hardcore — that the entire notion of “opportunity cost” comes back to something you would forego if you chose a second option. The entire science is based on choices, opportunities, and decisions — so this isn’t and shouldn’t be about troop numbers or surges or guns or protecting certain areas or even strategy. If you want to curb poppy production, give the farmers another choice. Yes, you still need to deal with the insurgents, and the violence, and the desire for drugs — and those are all complex issues. But at the core of this is the idea that farmers can’t get by doing anything else. The women of Afghan culture — who play a significant role in the poppy production — don’t even really want to be there. This seems to come back to choice, subsidies, other crops… something along those lines. That’s where you begin to attack the problem. It’s not going to solve the problem, but it seems like a start … and right now, we’re all mostly running behind in that area of the world.