Accidental Guerrilla, Part 4: Kilcullen on Drugs

Just to finish off this gruelling series, I wanted to flag Kilcullen’s take on Afghanistan and opium. In short, his argument is that counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics in Afghanistan are identical; the poppy mostly grows where the Taliban are, it provides something up to 50% of the movement’s income, and it is anyway impossible to do anything about it without fighting the Taliban. This is true.

However, he is almost immediately caught in a dilemma; if fighting the Taliban and the poppy are part of the same struggle, isn’t destroying the poppy crop pretty much the antithesis of counterinsurgency? As a survival-oriented civilian, the survival of your crop – i.e. your entire annual income and your capital – only takes second place to the survival of your neck.

The solution to this is to hold to the principle whilst stalling the implementation, a tactic everyone knows and loves. He is sensibly enough opposed to mass eradication, on the grounds that as well as being wildly unpopular, the only effective form is to physically tear the plants out, and that this anyway requires control of the poppy-growing territory, so that counterinsurgency is the precondition of counternarcotics.

He is opposed to the Senlis Council option of buying the poppy crop and using it for medical morphine, after “extensive analysis”; unfortunately he doesn’t share the extensive analysis, confining himself to a couple of paragraphs. These state, roughly, that much of the drug money that goes to the Taliban is collected via transport, interest on loans, and taxes, so they would continue to make money from it, and that buying the crop wouldn’t reduce the acreage under poppy.

Well, the obvious objection to the first is that this is true for any and all crops and economic activities so long as the insurgents are in possession. In fact, it only tends to confirm the first part of his argument; that the Taliban are the problem, not the poppy. But they would still be the problem if Afghanistan grew carrots. And the second is irrelevant; if the crop is being used for medical purposes, it doesn’t matter if more of it is planted.

In fact, it would be nothing but good news. The people would be in a position where growing as much of their most productive crop as possible would no longer be a dangerous and illegal activity. As James Wimberley points out, there is potential medical demand equivalent to several times Afghan production. Can they fill the whole demand? Well, let’s find out. I agree the Common Agricultural Policy is crap, but it’s a small price to pay for London’s 64th year with zero V2 rocket strikes.

And Kilcullen concedes that the link between the Taliban and the poppy originates in the drugs war.

He argues that there is an implicit social contract at work – you grow poppy (which is in any case the most productive crop you can grow, especially as the limiting factor is the water supply) and pay the taxes, we’ll keep the government from taking your crops. Well, yes.

Further, there is the question of whether it is even possible to reduce the heroin supply at source. We’ve been trying since 1971 with an unbroken record of costly failure.

Imagine that, by a heroic effort, the government managed to destroy, or prevent planting of, 30 per cent of the poppy crop. Well, assuming for simplicity that 100 per cent of it goes through Taliban hands and that 50 per cent of their revenue comes from it, that would add up to an absolute maximum 15 per cent cut in their funding. I would suspect that the annual variance of the Taliban’s income isn’t much less than that. And I would suspect that such an effort would consume essentially all the forces and budget available for discretionary operations in Afghanistan. It’s not worth it.

I had the feeling that the extensive analysis may have contained the phrase “shit, this is far too politically sensitive”.




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