Merchant of Death
Money, Guns, Planes, and the Man Who Makes War Possible

Blood from Stones

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Specks of Light in Dealing with Drug Crops?
Yesterday I had the opportunity to comment at the New America Foundation on the new book Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda, by Gretchen Peters.

What was interesting in the counter-terrorism context was what it would take to wean the poppy growers, or coca growers or other producers of illicit crops, to move toward alternatives.

We agreed on two basic points: There is little that can replace the real money the illicit crops generate; and most of the farmers engaged in the trade would rather not be in it because of the hassle, religious concerns in the case of the Muslim community, or other concerns. So the question becomes, what is the tipping point to move people to other activities.

The problem is that in order to find that tipping point, the government (or external forces) must be willing, and have the capacity, to step into the breach immediately to meet the felt needs of the community that is being affected. The measure of success is not the amount of crops eradicated, but the number of people and farmland that move to other activities because it is viable.

That means that, even if, from a macro-economic point of view building a hydro-electric project makes sense, what is really needed are the soccer fields, schools and public spaces that the community wants.

Of course, in order to do that, there has to be a sufficient level of security so that the projects can be built without being immediately destroyed, and the population can use them without fear of retaliation. In other words, the clear and hold model has to work.

So the Washington Post story on a new approach in Colombia is of interest because it is trying this approach, with some at least temporary success.

Under the Integrated Consolidation Plan for the Macarena, named after a national park west of here, the military first drove out guerrillas and other armed groups. In quick sequence, engineers and work crews, technicians, prosecutors, social workers and policy types arrived, working in concert to transform a lawless backwater into something resembling a functioning part of Colombia. All of it is coordinated from a compound, called the fusion center, on the edge of Vista Hermosa.

"We had to find a way to solve the security problem and the coca problem at the same time because they feed off each other," said Sergio Jaramillo, vice minister of defense and an architect of the project. "It's all one problem, and it needs a joint solution."

It is a tricky business, with many moving parts. One could argue that such an approach is not yet feasible in Afghanistan because the Taliban, unlike the FARC, is not in retreat or badly weakened. This is true, and the clear and hold model has proved incredibly resource intensive and time consuming, and often fails if the insurgents mass a concerted effort to defeat it.

But, as Ms. Peters said yesterday, a recent study shows that the tipping point for many Afghan farmers (one assumes that this would be in a fairly secure area where the Taliban cannot strike with impunity) to move out of poppy and opium production, is $4 a day. That isn't much.

Others at the event suggested buying the entire crop to avoid eradication efforts that often anger and radicalize the population, would be an option to consider.

What is true is that almost all of the alternative development programs have failed, in part because of policy flaws and design flaws, but most importantly the inability or unwillingness of the state to take immediate, visible action and provide protection.

Maybe the Colombians, as they have with many areas of fighting the criminal-terrorist nexus, can teach us a lesson in state building as well.

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