Wednesday, August 12, 2009

For Poppy and Liberty

Richard Albert has a new column up at The Mark, For Country and Legacy, regarding the upcoming Afghanistan election. It's a fine little essay - Richard is definitely on his game on this one - and it covers a fairly significant topic. I'm not an expert on Karzai's administration (or much else for that matter), but I can't say that I've had a net favourable impression. So, I will echo Richard's call for Karzai to withdraw.

And now, thankfully, back to some libertarian-ish commentary (you know, the whole purpose of this blog). Richard writes:
Karzai’s presidency has been less than stellar, and his character has often seemed even worse. The drug trade, mounting civil violence, and poor public services have all conspired with allegations of government corruption to envelop him in a cloud of criticism.
Ahh yes, the drug trade. It's bad enough that our neo-puritanical impulses are doing so much ill on this continent, but we've also spread the paternalistic drug war to developing nations as well.

Anne Applebaum writes (H/T Andrew Stuttaford):
Yet by far the most depressing aspect of the Afghan poppy crisis is the fact that it exists at all-because it doesn't have to. To see what I mean, look at the history of Turkey, where once upon a time the drug trade also threatened the country's political and economic stability. Just like Afghanistan, Turkey had a long tradition of poppy cultivation. Just like Afghanistan, Turkey worried that poppy eradication could bring down the government. Just like Afghanistan, Turkey-this was the era of Midnight Express-was identified as the main source of the heroin sold in the West. Just like in Afghanistan, a ban was tried, and it failed.

As a result, in 1974, the Turks, with U.S. and U.N. support, tried a different tactic. They began licensing poppy cultivation for the purpose of producing morphine, codeine, and other legal opiates. Legal factories were built to replace the illegal ones. Farmers registered to grow poppies, and they paid taxes. You wouldn't necessarily know this from the latest White House drug strategy report-which devotes several pages to Afghanistan but doesn't mention Turkey-but the U.S. government still supports the Turkish program, even requiring U.S. drug companies to purchase 80 percent of what the legal documents euphemistically refer to as "narcotic raw materials" from the two traditional producers, Turkey and India.

Why not add Afghanistan to this list? The only good arguments against doing so-as opposed to the silly, politically correct, "just say no" arguments-are technical: that the weak or nonexistent bureaucracy will be no better at licensing poppy fields than at destroying them, or that some of the raw material will still fall into the hands of the drug cartels. Yet some of these problems can be solved by building processing factories at the local level and working within local power structures. And even if the program only succeeds in stopping half the drug trade, then a huge chunk of Afghanistan's economy will still emerge from the gray market, the power of the drug barons will be reduced, and, most of all, Western money will have been visibly spent helping Afghan farmers survive instead of destroying their livelihoods. The director of the Senlis Council, a group that studies the drug problem in Afghanistan, told me he reckons that the best way to "ensure more Western soldiers get killed" is to expand poppy eradication further.

Besides, things really could get worse. It isn't so hard to imagine, two or three years down the line, yet another emergency presidential speech calling for yet another "surge" of troops-but this time to southern Afghanistan, where impoverished villagers, having turned against the West, are joining the Taliban in droves. Before we get there, maybe it's worth letting some legal poppies bloom.
Civil unrest in Afghanistan is tied to the drug trade; as is economic prosperity (or, at least, not starving to death). If the bad guys will let the poor farmers grow poppies and, thus, feed their families, while the good guys won't, guess who the farmers will side with.

Hell, who would you side with?

(Note: In my reading of Richard's column, I did not think he was coming down on one side or the other of the issue of how to deal with the drug trade in Afghanistan, but that he was noting that it was a failing of Karzai's administration. Regardless of our respective positions on drug laws, I agree with him on this point, so this post should not read as an attack on Richard's column. I was merely using it as a jumping off point for a typical libertarian bug-a-boo.)

1 comment:

  1. Libertarian or not, your position strikes me as common sense. I can't see how anyone could reasonably disagree.

    I guess you libertarians aren't that bad after all! :)