Chasing the dragon, pt. 2

Part  2…hatin’ the player, not the game

090801_AfghanistanDrugs_slasherThe Senate is prepared to discuss the problem of Afghan corruption at length. It must be all the marble and parliamentary silly-talk that makes these men immune to irony, because portions of the report’s section entitled “The Scope of Corruption” sound like a description of American politics if the reader mad-libs a little. The Senate is very worried about the scope of corruption from the drug trade in Afghanistan. It forgets, in its rush to explain how horrid Afghanistan is, that it already admitted to setting the stage for this very situation when the U.S. invaded in 2001. Or maybe the Honorable Senators think that they weren’t there, cheering on “the good war”…that they had no responsibility to oversee the comedy of errors that led us to this point they feel so compelled to decry. In any case, the Senators know evil when they see it. And they’re not afraid to dedicate three paragraphs to giving Ahmed Wali Karzai the Billy Carter treatment.

Opium corrupts absolutely, so the Senate should be unsurprised to find out that the rot may well reach to the presidential family. The question becomes what the Senate proposes to do about this corruption? Big plans, they have big plans.

The military, while not busy denying Al Qaeda safe haven, will be camping out near opium fields. It will be tasked with holding ground to “provide security” (no word on how secure the Afghan villagers will feel with a firefight waiting to happen in the neighborhood) so that opium farmers and traffickers will be pushed into less hospitable areas. The new security will also pave the way for DEA teams and the civilian surge that will right previous wrongs. Many acronyms new to the Afghan landscape will be involved, and there will be interdepartmental cooperation the likes of which we’ve never seen before. But the crown jewel of the “new strategies” is the blanket surveillance of cell traffic, which the Senate – perhaps with a touch of envy – points out is completely legal in Afghanistan. Those Afghans sure are lucky to be learning about freedom from the likes of us.

There will also be a new agency, the Joint Interagency Task Force, responsible for all sorts of Tom Clancy like Drug War adventures that the Senate likes to call, “Remove them from the Battlefield”. You’ve no doubt heard about the “hit list”, we’ll this is it and the brand new unit that has a brand new interpretation of the ROE to go with it.

The idea, and it’s a standard issue War on Drugs idea, is to go after the kingpins. Theoretically, the operation will fall apart without these men. Unfortunately, our record of actually apprehending kingpins in any of the drug trade is pretty spotty. And in a great many cases, the kingpin quietly walks out of jail after the media’s headline length attention span elapses. We’ll be treated to periodic declarations of a “major victory” in the Afghan narco-war, but the trade will continue on unabated. Kingpins are like politicians, there’s never a shortage of new ones to take the place of the old.

This narco war will require us to chase the drug traffickers into Pakistan. (Bet you didn’t see that coming.) And it will continue the long story of chasing illicit opium production around the globe. The other major producer regions have been producing less and less opium as Afghanistan has produced more. According to the UNWDR2009, the Golden Triangle produced 420 metric tons of opium in 2008, compared to Afghanistan’s 7,700. By the law of supply and demand, a kilogram of opium in the Golden Triangle cost $310 at the farm gate. A kilo in Afghanistan fetched just $70, and a recent report suggests that the price has dropped to $48/kg. Golden Triangle growers have no hope of competing with the Afghan opium explosion on world markets, but Afghanistan’s recent over production will probably do more to curb the trade there than any action by the U.S. Still, that world market will remain and if/when production decreases in Afghanistan it will just as surely increase somewhere else.

There is too much money involved for the trade to stop. More importantly, the powers that be don’t want it to stop. Assuming that Newsweek is publishing correct figures, the street value of Afghanistan’s production is $52 billion. And while that is spread across a very large network of people, the largest profits gravitate towards the top of the pyramid. There is not much (aside from entering the black market arms trade) that you can do with billions in dirty money. Suitcases – or pallets – full of cash are a problem for the drug trade. It gets cleaned by the kind of quiet bankers who deal with very large sums, and it enters the regular economy where it does regular things like get invested, purchase casinos or keep Ferrari in business. Billions talk, and when they do people listen…even Senators.

Senators, however, are likely to pretend not to hear if those billions whisper about funding covert operations in America’s name. Extraordinary rendition, secret prisons, contract torturers and assassinations cost money. Or weapons. Or drugs. You can bet your bottom dollar that an honest history of our Afghan adventure will include American involvement in the drug trade that produces Senate Foreign Affairs memos.

It is interesting that the leading nation in The War on Drugs happens to occupy the country producing 90% of the word’s opium harvest, yet only 2% of world-wide opium seizures occur in Afghanistan. Put your money on Richard Armitage’s name to figure prominently in this sordidness. And a side-bet on US agencies pushing heroin into Iran as a lucrative means to destabilize a nation with one of the highest per capita opiate addiction rates in the world will probably be a winner too.

Image credit: Newsweek

2 replies »

  1. But, but … it sounds like the involvement of the American government is interfering with the free market. GOOD LORD – this is SOCIALISM! Just like here at home!

    Aherm. Sorry about that.