3.29.2010

Opium and Afghanistan - An Intractable Equation?

A - US Policy in Afghanistan assumes support of the Afghani population.
B - ~64% of the Afghan population participate in and rely on Opium related agriculture.
C - The Taliban and Al Qaeda rely on Afghan Opium export for much of their funding.

Is there a problem here? The Taliban, Al Qaeda, and the US seem to require the Opium trade to achieve their ends - the first two directly, the latter indirectly through the support of a significant portion of the Afghan population.

According to a report published today by StratFor, Afghanistan produces over 90% of the world's opium supply. It is a $2.3 Billion revenue source and represents a $65 Billion trade by the time it gets to end users - some of whom are presumably pharmaceutical companies (though a small percentage).

According to the World Fact Book, almost 80% of the population is involved in agriculture. The most important crop is Opium. Since the Fact Book doesn't include so-called "illicit" exports - the $ 547 M  it cites as legitimate exports, implies that Opium represents 80% of all agricultural export dollars.
  • Annual Afghani production (of Afghani Opium) : 6000 Tons, 12 M lbs Opium (equivalent to 1.2M lbs Heroin) 
  • Annual economic impact (to Afghanistan): $2.3 B, $191/lb. Opium, ($1,910/lb Heroin), about 20% of Afghanistan's GDP. 
  • Annual global economic impact: $65 B, $5,400 /lb. Opium, ($54,000/lb Heroin)
  • 78% of the population is involved in Agriculture
Afghani's (mainly traffickers) have stockpiled the equivalent of 2 years of demand, creating their own hedge against market fluctuations and a harvest season which runs from December through April.

The US has sidestepped demands for an opium eradication program. Wiping out 20-40% of the Afghan economy isn't seen as a move designed to gain local support for US military action. Perhaps more significant however is that some portion of the approx. $63 B ends up in the hands of the Taliban and Al Qaeda foes of the US. 

The sheer profitability of the Opium trade mitigates easy replacement with acceptable cash crops. An admittedly rough comparison of Opium and Corn commodity prices underscores a replacement of the Opium ($191/lb) with the Corn ($0.0375/bushel = $ 0.00535/lb) to be - well, a challenge at least.

If one could ignore world wide demand for Opium and Opium products, then one might ask, if we simply paid $2.3 B/ year to farmers to grow other cash crops instead of Opium could we eliminate (literally) the Al Quaeda and Taliban middle men, the opium crop - and rid the world of 90% of the opium trade? 

These numbers of course don't tell the whole story, or reveal the cost in human suffering and public health costs, let alone other, less tangible social costs. The StratFor article reveals that Russia has switched from a major shipment route for Afghani Opium, to a major market for Opium products. Vladimir Putin is encouraging eradication as a solution to his country's increasing heroin addiction problem. In the current phase of US/Afghani operations - the US is not listening very closely.

Until something is changed in the equation above, or its assumptions, I have to conclude that Afghanistan will remain an intractable quagmire.

That said - I have no doubt that God has a different equation in mind, a different set of principles than that of our respective national interests. I only pray that we can perceive and act upon it.

~r

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