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

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Shadow Facilitators and Alternative Crops in Afghanistan
One sign of how concerned the military and administration are about the situation is the new thinking that is going on while looking at old problems. Two important stories highlight just how sharp the change in strategy is.

The first is the New York Times piece on the addition of 50 drug lords to the list of Afghanis on the Pentagon's target list to kill or capture. This is recognition of the symbiotic and devastating link between the drug trade financing the Taliban (and al Qaeda). The 50 are what the DEA would call "shadow facilitators," those who are able to deal across criminal-terrorist-tribal-ethnic lines to buy opium, sell heroin, import surface-to-air missiles etc.

Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman...said that “there is a positive, well-known connection between the drug trade and financing for the insurgency and terrorism.” Without directly addressing the existence of the target list, he said that it was “important to clarify that we are targeting terrorists with links to the drug trade, rather than targeting drug traffickers with links to terrorism.”

That may be a distinction without a difference in the Af/Pak region, and one that has been made for years as the U.S. military resisted efforts to get drawn into counterdrug operations. But the fact remains that, unless the vast pool of resources flowing from the drug trade is dried up, there is no hope of defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda.

One reason is that the corruption from the opium/heroin trade has also almost completely corrupted the current government, making it both more difficult to combat and more corrosive within society. Never mind the money is used to sustain an army that has few other revenue streams.

But an equally-important part of the new strategy was laid out by the Washington Post in describing the new efforts to wean the local population off of the poppy harvest.

Rather than trying to forcibly eradicate the poppy harvest-a tactic that has been shown repeatedly not only to fail but to deeply alienate the local populations and have little overall impact, the new strategy calls for using basic economics to try to stop the poppy cultivation.

Given that many of the poppy growers survive the winters by taking out advance loans from the drug traffickers against the coming year's poppy harvest, the idea is to give the poppy farmers several alternatives to that credit market and labor market.

By selling wheat seeds and fruit saplings to farmers at token prices, offering cheap credit, and paying poppy-farm laborers to work on roads and irrigation ditches, U.S. and British officials hope to provide alternatives before the planting season begins in early October...We need a way to get money in [farmers'] hands right away," said a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan.

So in theory the upper echelons of the drug-terrorist (and corruption) network are being attacked while causing less trauma and harm to the small farmers who will do whatever it takes to survive economically in very difficult times. And that is clearly better than the alternative of going after the local growers who, in the end, profit very little from the poppy, because the real value added is when the poppy is transformed to opium then heroin and sold on the European market.

Unfortunately, no drug eradication/interdiction/alternative crop strategy has ever produced the desired results.

Officials maintain that the new Afghan plan differs from unsuccessful "alternative" plans because it is an integral part of a military-development strategy that includes tens of thousands of U.S. troops to keep the Taliban and traffickers at bay while Afghan security forces are being trained. Plans call for hundreds of U.S. and international aid experts to work directly with farmers and local officials until the Afghan government has matured.

"The way [the assistance] is offered is important," said the senior U.S. military official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the program on the record. "We are not providing subsidies . . . we are not just handing out cash." Farmers will have a "stake" in the program, he said, buying vouchers for seeds and fertilizers for about 10 percent of their value. Cash will be distributed only as credit or for work performed, the official added.

This dual strategy is certainly better than the strategy that has been so ineffectual over the past many years. One key question is whether it is too late. The Taliban has so much surplus opium on its hands that it can afford to continue to sell for many months, and the lack of new poppies would likely drive up the cost of opium in the short term next year.

That means that we need a sustained, focused policy that can be maintained for enough time to give the shift a real chance. And that is not the strong point of part of the U.S. government. As prices rise there will be tremendous pressure to go back to the eradication strategy. Let's hope we can see far enough down the road to see if the new approach-coupled with the elimination of some of the super fixers of the drug trade works. Otherwise we will simply have had another costly and demoralizing turn in the drug wars.

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