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CNN Terrorism Analyst Peter Bergen on Afghan Opium Conundrum

Last week I promised to post comments by Peter Bergen (CNN terrorism analyst) responding to a question I asked of him last week about the Afghan opium conundrum. Following is a transcript, prepared with great labor by DRCNet's Tom Klun. (Tom was working from online video of the forum, which took place at the New America Foundation. The forum was devoted to the presenters' findings in a new report on the relationship of the Iraq War to jihadist terrorism -- an issue on which DRCNet as a drug policy organization has no position.)

David Borden, Drug War Chronicle: A number of scholars and NGOs have pointed out that both the opium economy and campaigns against opium growing in Afghanistan are helping the Taliban -- the former through funding, the latter by alienating people from the government and driving farmers to them. Our editor met some of these farmers about a year and a half ago. My question is, how do you see both the opium economy and opium eradication playing into the situation with Al Qaeda; and short of outright legalization (which might not happen in 2007 [editor's note: understatement]), how do you feel the opium issue ought to be handled?
Peter Bergen: Well, eradication doesn't work, I mean, there's a vast amount of academic literature showing that it just pushes the growers into the arms of the insurgents, and it is very unpopular in Afghanistan. In fact, Karzai has basically rejected US efforts to get ground spraying, he's pushed that back to 2008. He's saying we're going to just do eradication by hand or by tractor. One of the reasons the US military didn't really get involved in the whole drug issue is that they had bigger fish to fry, which is going after Al Qaeda and the Taliban. I mean, clearly the Taliban is benefitting from this, as are people in the south.
Afghanistan is by the way the 5th poorest country in the world. It would be like saying we're basically going to take away the only way you can make a living, by eradicating your fields. So we have to come up with something a little more creative than just saying we're going to eradicate. That would be bad for counterinsurgency policy, and I don't think it will work. So what are the two options? One is, if you're going to do crop substitution you have to subsidize the crops that are being substituted. You can't get people to grow cotton unless they can make roughly what they would be making growing poppy. Now we do this all the time with our farmers, the EU does it all the time with its farmers, paying people to grow things or not to grow things. We're spending $750 million dollars a year on drug eradications in Afghanistan, the farmers are making $750 million dollars, so we've got a fair amount of money to play with, roughly the same amount of money they are benefiting. We can use that for, you know, to prop up the price, give them money to grow crops like cotton, nuts and fruits.
And also we should consider that the legalized opiate trade is dominated by Turkey and India, which basically have a lock. Eight percent of the world has almost no morphine, so there's this huge pain crisis in the developing world. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, where we have a huge national security interest. Why not amend the law that is now in place, where Turkey and India are basically mandated to get 80% of the legal opiate trade from US manufacturers? Why not have a pilot project in a province in Afghanistan where there is reasonable security and just see if this idea -- you don't have to do the legalized opiate trade for the whole country, just see in one province if this would work and subsidize farmers so that they can grow poppy for the legalized opiate trade. That's an idea, but either way we're going to have to do crop substitution with subsidies. Nothing else is going to work, we can't just eradicate.

Bergen was presumably referring to a proposal floated by the Senlis Council, a European drug policy and development think tank. (It was the 2005 Senlis conference in Kabul that took Phil to the troubled fourth world country.) It's good to see such a high-profile US-based expert raising the possibility.

I actually encountered skepticism about the idea from some of my European colleagues (as well as support for it) when I traveled to Brussels last fall for a conference at the European Parliament. One of them, while expressing admiration for the beautiful execution of the campaign by the Senlis people, pointed out that as long as opiates are illegal for non-medical use, someone is going to supply them, which potentially means that Afghanistan could just have more opium growing in total, the licensed market and the black market -- Ahmed might switch to growing for the licit supply, but that doesn't mean his brother or uncle will. I largely agree with that point.

The other argument is one to which I am instinctively less sympathetic, but which came from someone I respect and for which I don't have sufficient information to evaluate. This other colleague said that the poor countries where the new supply of opiate pain relievers would go to, countries in Africa and so forth, don't have the infrastructure to control them -- they would be a target for organized crime, the drugs might not even get to the patients, and there would be a new organized crime problem of a type that those countries don't have now.

After thinking about this for awhile, I came to the tentative conclusion that we should at least be calling for a pilot project. (It was gratifying to see Peter Bergen say the same thing.) This is why: It's true that new growers of black market opium for the non-medical market should be expected to take the place of any growers who switch to the licensed medical market, or the same growers will just grow more -- supply fills demand, and neither eradication nor substitution nor licensing for a market that's already legal will reduce it. But that doesn't mean all the new growing will be in Afghanistan. Some of it might crop up elsewhere, and there are less destructive places for it to happen than in that unstable country that harbors people who want to kill us. And why shouldn't Afghan farmers have the right to participate in the legal economy? They certainly need the work as much as anyone does. Lastly, patients in severe, chronic pain deserve medication, even if there is a risk of diversion of the supply causing crime, even if in fact it's an inevitability. Let the pilot growing project in Afghanistan be accompanied by pilot opiate pain management projects in the destination countries, with the security issues on both ends getting thought through at the same time.

Time for a drug policy reform/global security campaign?


U.S. says anti-terror allies slip on drugs

Washington, DC
United States
Washington Times

U.S. worried by scandal rocking Colombia

International Herald Tribune (France)

Southwest Asia: Afghan Opium Eradication Effort Sparks New Violence

Afghan police briefly fled from a town in Bakwa district in Farah province after four of them were killed in a roadside bomb attack as their 10-vehicle convoy returned from a day of eradicating opium plants. Taliban militants moved into the town and seized three vehicles before abandoning the area, local officials said.
Meanwhile, in Ghor province, one poppy farmer was killed and two wounded when police opened fire on a crowd of 500 people protesting government eradication efforts. The protest came after police began eradicating plants in the area.

In Bakwa, the roadside bomb targeted the province's police chief. He was uninjured, but four officers riding in his vehicle were killed. "Three policemen were killed on the spot, and another died of his injuries in the hospital today," district Police Chief Afgha Saqib told Deutsch Presse-Agentur Monday.

Saqib blamed the Taliban for the attack. The resurgent guerrilla group is widely seen as benefiting from the drug trade in Afghanistan, which now produces more than 90% of the world's opium.

Taliban militants also seized the town of Musa Qala in Helmand province on February 1 and remain in control there. Helmand is now the largest opium producing province in the country.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai rejected US offers to spray poppy plants with herbicides and vowed to undertake an extensive eradication campaign this year. Last year, the Afghan opium crop grew by a whopping 49% over the previous year, producing an estimated 6,700 tons of opium, enough to make 670 tons of heroin.

Australian help sought for drug fight

Herald Sun (Australia)

The Drug War Chronicle Andean Coca Tour 2007 is about to get underway

Friday night, I will be bedding down in Peru, after a day-long flight from Sioux Falls to Denver to Houston to Lima. That will be the first of 21 nights in Peru and Bolivia as the Drug War Chronicle explores the coca industry and its unsavory relative, the cocaine industry, in the Andes. While the process of making connections is ongoing and always a little shaky in developing countries, things are falling into place. While I will spend most of that first weekend resting and getting oriented, it looks like I'll have lunch Monday with Peruvian psychologist and coca expert Baldomero Caceres and Anthony Henman. Henman is a legendary name when it comes to coca. The British anthropologist (since gone native) is the man who, under a pseudonym, wrote "Mama Coca" back in the 1970s. That was the first serious ethnographic study of coca's history and use in the Andes for lay readers in English. I look forward to seeing what Henman has to say about the current state of affairs. Later that day, I will go to the upscale suburb of Miraflores for dinner with Ricardo Soberon, a leading Peruvian drugs and security expert. He was an advisor to coca grower leader turned congresswoman Nancy Obregon, but has since departed over unspecified political differences. I'll be sure to query him (and Nancy) about the nature of those differences. Speaking of Nancy, she is currently back home in northern Peru, so I won't be able to talk to her during that first week. But she will be back in Lima at the end of the month, and I will do an interview with her then. (I have to be out of Bolivia by February 28 because their visa requirements kick in on March 1.) I think I will fly from Lima to Ayacucho next Wednesday. That ancient city high in the Andes is the historic heartland of Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist guerrillas who led an uprising in the 1980s where tens of thousands were killed. The Senderistas are still around, though much weakened, and they try to gain the support of coca growers by killing policemen and anti-government drug workers. But Ayacucho is also the home of national coca growers' union leader Nelson Palomino, whom I will interview. Palomino and his crew have also promised to show me the coca fields and let me talk to farmers, so that should be enlightening. After that, I'll take a couple of days for the mandatory tourist visit to Machu Picchu outside Cusco, then I'll bus it from Cusco across the altiplano to Bolivia. At least that's the plan right now; there are reports of severe flooding right where I'll be crossing the border. I'm still trying to set things up with the American embassy in Lima and with the big Peruvian drug bureaucracies, ENACO (the coca monopoly) and DEVIDA (the drug enforcement bureaucracy). I've been talking with the US press officer in Lima about getting a meeting, but because I don't represent established media, I can't get official press status with the embassy, which means the press officer won't officially deal with me, but may manage to hook me up with some of the drug people in the embassy. Similar plans are in the works for Bolivia. Stay tuned.
United States

GOP lawmakers press Bush on Afghanistan

Washington, DC
United States
Los Angeles Times

Southwest Asia: British Conservatives Call for Afghan Opium to Be Licensed, Converted to Pharmaceuticals, Not Destroyed

As they prepare for pending elections, British Conservatives have joined the call for licensing of the Afghan opium crop. The move comes just days after the British Medical Association called for Afghan opium to be processed into heroin and prescribed to addicts.
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
The US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan have an official policy of eradicating the country's poppy crop, but given the potential dangers of pushing opium farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban, politicians and officials across Europe are increasingly seeking other options. A 2005 proposal by the European defense and drug policy think tank the Senlis Council to license the crop and divert into the legitimate medicinal market has proved to be a convenient starting off point for those seeking alternatives to eradication.

Conservative leader Lord Howell told parliament last week that the "very dangerous" policy of eradication was "just not working." He said alternatives like licensing the crop needed to be looked at. "The more we try to eradicate, the more poppies seem to get grown," he said. "Trying to stop poor farmers growing poppies to survive and live and feed their families is going to be almost impossible," he said.

Lord Howell's comments came just days after the British Medical Association argued that Afghan opium could be used to help deal with a shortage of prescription heroin, or diamorphine, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, told the BBC. "If we actually were harvesting this drug from Afghanistan rather than destroying it, we'd be benefiting the population of Afghanistan as well as helping patients and not putting people at risk," said Nathanson. "There must be ways of harvesting it and making sure that the harvest safely reaches the drug industry which would then refine it into diamorphine," she suggested. "It should be possible, and really Government and the international groups that are in Afghanistan should be looking at this and saying how can we convert it from being an illicit crop to a legal crop that is medicinally useful."

Op-Ed: Destroying poppies isn't path to Afghan stability

Philadelphia, PA
United States
The Philadelphia Inquirer

Winning at Whack-A-Mole

Here's Robert J. Caldwell at Human Events gloating over our extradition of 11 major drug traffickers from Mexico:

A counter-narcotics war popularly disparaged as a chronic loser, yet vital to the national interests of both Mexico and the United States, is producing its biggest victories ever.

Heck, let's give it to him. Biggest drug war victory ever! If there's such a thing, this has got to be it. We've made "an enormous leap forward" Karen Tandy proudly exclaimed from atop the first rung of her towering ladder to the moon.

This glowing triumph will provide a great opportunity to see if the drug war actually works. Maybe the Biggest Victory Ever will lead to a rock shortage down on crack street. But if it doesn't (and it so totally won't), then this grand achievement will serve only to illustrate that top priorities of the international drug war still don't bring us a day closer to the fairytale ending our drug warriors daydream about.

Indeed, the black market is a dragon with a thousand heads that regenerate if you cut one off. We can battle it for generations, but the beast will only grow stronger until we stop feeding it.

United States

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