Tuesday, August 11, 2009

It's like Rip van Winkle or something

It seems like every day I read another opinion column in which the author proposes a policy course that has been widely discussed, perhaps criticized, and either implemented or disregarded already. Our fresh thinker tends to present his or her idea as cutting-edge, out-of-the-box, and certain to succeed. Today's installment comes from everyone's favorite right-wing McLaughlin Group commentator, Tony Blankley:
Also, we cannot deny the locals the revenue from the poppy fields and hope to befriend and empower the local tribal chiefs and farmers. It would be better if we simply bought the whole yearly crop (approximate cost $2 billion to $3 billion - but far cheaper in both dollars and American lives than the alternative,) and directed it to the legal pharmaceutical market. Thus, the Afghans keep their desperately needed money (and their traditional tribal relations and culture), the Taliban doesn't get its cut, and we keep the heroin off the streets of Europe and America.
I'm pretty sure no one has thought of this one before: why don't we just buy up all the opium and channel it into legal pharma?? Then the bad guys can't make any money off of it!

Only, they can. Does Blankley really think that the "Taliban's cut" in the drug trade comes from buying up the crop and then selling it at a higher price? Money is extorted and stolen from the Afghan people by the insurgents. It doesn't matter where this money comes from (but drugs happen to be a convenient medium because there's a premium to be made on their transport and sale, too). If the coalition starts buying up the crop, then the enemy will simply extort American dollars from farmers instead.

Unless, that is, we're able to cleave the insurgents from the farmers and the rest of the civilian populace. The odds of that don't look great at this point, especially with these force levels. (Not to mention the fact that the strategic logic of committing the necessary forces is... well, let's say it's questionable.)

Here's another charming nugget from the same article:

According to several of the troops with whom I talked, a policy that merely wanted permanently to suppress the Taliban could be more surely gained by fully empowering the local tribal chiefs and warlords to go after the Taliban - who, though of the same Pashtun tribe as many Afghans, are considered different subsets of tribe and thus foreigners worthy of enthusiastic slaughter.

Afghans hate foreigners, whether Macedonian, British, Russian, American or Pakistani Pashtun.

Is he serious? Does he think most Pashtun tribesmen in the Hindu Kush have any concern for (or even know) which side of the Durand Line they're on?

Blenkley figures we ought to just go away and takes the gloves off of the "local tribal chiefs and warlords." (In the latter case, hasn't Karzai pretty much already done that?) Those power brokers are only likely to "go after the Taliban" so long as it's in their interest to do so, which is to say so long as it looks like they're certain to win, and like they have more to gain from prosecuting a campaign against the Taliban than from reconciling with them, switching sides, or negotiating. This idea is based on the false perception that there is some sort of wide consensus about exactly who the bad guys are in Afghanistan.

I don't want to sound like Josh Foust here, but can the Blankleys and other political hacks of the world get out of the business of offering half-baked "solutions" to complex problems like Afghanistan?

14 comments:

  1. I might be stupid - but surely if the Taliban extorted money then that would cause them significant difficulty in their relationships with the local populace?

    So the buying up the crop idea is still sound, no?

    I mean, better (for the West) that the Taliban are seen as exploitative blood sucking parasites rather than trading partners? (either directly or through associates)

    In any case, the key alternative to buying opium eg burning poppy fields, denying livelihoods etc is likely to cause the West the sorts of anti-pop centric problems which buying opium would cause the Taliban.

    I may, of course, be missing something obvious.

    Ramzi

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  2. One other thing, you say:

    "Does Blankley really think that the "Taliban's cut" in the drug trade comes from buying up the crop and then selling it at a higher price?"

    Well, if the Taliban, or their associates at least arent involved with the buying and selling of opium, why did the US put those 50 dudes on a target list.

    According to one of the generals giving evidence to the senate committee deciding the list they had identified "50 nexus targets who link drugs and the insurgency".

    These people, at the least, would be put put of business by buying up the opium stock.

    Ramzi

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  3. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/aug/10/us-policy-drugs-afghanistan-taliban

    link for story above

    RN

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  4. I just finished The Accidental Guerilla by David Kilcullen and it has the most extensive discussion of this problem that I have read. He made the excellent point that the drug trade is directly tied in with the largest centers of the insurgency. Until I read his argument, I was generally against waging a counter-narcotics campaign during our counter-insurgency campaign. Unfortunately, we don't have that luxury and the crazy idea that we can buy the crop and stop the insurgency won't work. Providing local security and eradicating the crop is a much better solution.

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  5. My favorite political argument is the one that asserts we should be in Afghanistan because most Americans think we should and because the 9/11 attacks came from Afghanistan. How do either of these two assertions explain the real or imagined, actual or potential, national security gains from OEF? This is one of those rare occasions when I agree with Tom Friedman. We have gotten so obsessed with "winning" the "good war" that we've lost sight of why we're even fighting it.

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  6. Schmedlap -- I'm with you there. I'm fixin' to wade into the big-picture strategy talk in the next couple of days, so hopefully we can start to engage on those "real or imagined, actual or potential, national security gains."

    Ramzi -- Well, if the Taliban, or their associates at least arent involved with the buying and selling of opium, why did the US put those 50 dudes on a target list.

    According to one of the generals giving evidence to the senate committee deciding the list they had identified "50 nexus targets who link drugs and the insurgency".

    These people, at the least, would be put put of business by buying up the opium stock.


    I'm familiar with the story, and have been talking about it over on AM (along with SNLII and fnord). I'd point you over there to avoid retyping a lot of stuff.

    I don't mean to suggest that the targeted 50 are not connected to the insurgency, or that there is no reason whatsoever to target them. What I am saying is that I think this development is probably a product of the military wanting a clear target set to go through and check boxes, rather than something that's going to be directly correlated with achieving our objectives in the fight.

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  7. Michael C, the notion that taxing the trade in narcotics supplies even more than a third of the many insurgencies' combined income has been thoroughly debunked by real experts on the subject, including the UN.

    Kilcullen is granted de facto "expert" status on a great many topics, but when one starts to pick apart his notions with bonafide experts some "facts" tend to fall apart.

    In 2007, UNDOC estimated that the Taliban skimmed 10 percent off the top of the opium trade in their territories (estimated at about $100 million of the $1 billion produced in zones under their control).

    If you really think that the vast insurgency is funded by a mere $100 million, then Kilcullen needs some help on his next book.

    SNLII

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  8. Oh, by the way, I should add that the fall in global opium prices also hurt the trade in Afghanistan. UNDOC estimated that the Taliban earned only between $60 million and $70 million on drug taxes.

    Again, if you think that the Taliban somehow are finacing their revolution on a mere $60 million then we have more problems than we know.

    SNLII

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  9. Anonymous- His primary point is that if we attack the drug trade we will not alienate a large portion of the population because they are currently allied with the Taliban. Taxing isn't the only way they make money. If I didn't make it clear, Kilcullen explains his points extremely well and I can't do so for him in a short comment post.

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  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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  11. Whoopsie, Anon @ 3:47 -- remember this?

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  12. Aw, I kind of like Tony Blankley.

    The problem is the format of the newspaper pundit: the articles will always seem glib to the knowledgeable. I rarely read Pauline Chen or Atul Gawande even though they are both quite good in the NYT and New Yorker, respectively, but the articles don't satisfy me as a physician. I get irritated because I want something else. Doesn't mean the articles are bad, I just want a kind of depth not possible in that format.

    "Afghans hate foreigners, whether Macedonian, British, Russian, American or Pakistani Pashtun." Okay, I've been wanting to ask this for some time - how Pakistani are the Pakistani Pashtuns? I mean, I get your point about how they don't care about the Durand Line, but ARE there any differences, even if minor?

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  13. Okay, I've been wanting to ask this for some time - how Pakistani are the Pakistani Pashtuns? I mean, I get your point about how they don't care about the Durand Line, but ARE there any differences, even if minor?

    I'm gonna tap out here and call in MK, but my non-anthropologist's understanding is that guys living up in the mountains of the FATA identify just about as much with the residents of Islamabad and Karachi as London and Houston.

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  14. Oh, thanks, so I was totally wrong before when I challenged MK on an earlier post about potential 'push back' from Pakistan on Pakistani Pashtuns vs. Afghan Pashtuns? I mean, in a kind of proxy way by Islamabad.
    (Never mind. It makes sense to me :) )

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