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May 27, 2009 / jeni

The Flood Strategy: Never Going to Work

iran-border-110507-lgI have a huge amount of respect for Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (not least because of the delightful Costa’s Corner. And he Twitters! ). So it’s hard for me to understand how he could possibly get behind the latest proposal for CN in Afghanistan.

United Nations officials in Afghanistan are attempting to create a “flood of drugs” in the country intended to destroy the value of opium and force poppy farmers to switch to legal crops such as wheat. After the failure to destroy fields of the scarlet flowers in Afghanistan’s volatile south, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says the answer is to stop the drugs from leaving the country in the first place.

“Manual eradication is incompetent and inefficient,” UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa said during a visit to the western Afghan province of Herat. “So we want to see more efforts to stop the flow of drugs across Afghanistan’s borders and the hitting of high-value targets to create a market disruption. “We want to create a flood of drugs within Afghanistan. There will be so much opium inside Afghanistan unable to go out that the price will go down.”

Officials admit that the plan is a second-best solution to intensive eradication campaigns.

To be frank, I don’t think this is a second-best solution. I think it’s no solution at all. Let’s look at the Iranian border:

Costa got a first-hand view of that issue this month from the porthole of a UN helicopter chartered to fly along a portion of the 580-mile border that separates Afghanistan from Iran. The vast swaths of desert are thinly populated with a scattering of mud brick villages, and there is little to stop smugglers crossing the border.

While the Iranians, fed up with the problems created by the country’s 1 million heroin addicts, have taken steps to build ditches and walls along the frontier, the Afghans lack even a fraction of those resources.

On the Afghan side of the border, Costa visited one of 24 squalid border checkpoints supported by a sprinkling of EU money, where the commanding officer told the UNODC chief that his men needed heavy weapons to defend themselves against the much better armed smugglers who race through the huge gaps in the border.

Last summer I had the chance to cross the Tajik-Afghan border at Sherkhan Bandar (from the Tajik side). Our car approached a gleaming new border facility built with EU funds… and then swerved around it, tackling a rutted dirt road leading to a small trailer-like building. This was the actual border post. Dozens of Chinese and Pakistani trucks surrounded it, waiting for the right official to show up and accept their bribes so they could cross the border without being searched.

It was explained to me that the new border facility was not in use because of a dispute in Dushanbe over which ministry should control it (and thus control the revenue streams emerging from it). As we pulled away toward Afghanistan, we had a lingering view of the shiny and expansive compound — and the lone guard sitting at the striped road barrier, prepared for traffic that would seemingly never come. (And you thought your job sucked.)

All this, of course, does not even begin to account for the thousands of miles of virtually unguarded border regions that Afghanistan has.

The article also points to the tension between counternarcotics and local economies:

Their efforts have been further undermined by a recent decree by President Hamid Karzai to close down small cross-border markets which had been a source of economic activity in an otherwise barren wilderness. The local UNODC officials say the decision by Karzai, apparently taken to protect customs revenues, is “killing the villages”.

The governor of Herat province, Ahmad Yusef Nuristani, said young people in the border areas had no choice but to join the drug smugglers to survive. “They were trading areas that kept people busy with legitimate businesses so they would not be tempted into employment by the drug traffickers,” Nuristani said.

And finally, we have yet another headache to worry about:

The UNODC country chief, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, also warned that the strategy of capitalising on falling opium prices could be torpedoed by Chinese drug dealers looking to Afghanistan to supply China’s growing army of heroin addicts. “I think we have a two-year window before the Chinese pick up on the Afghan market. Currently the Chinese dealers source their heroin from the Golden Triangle. The networks have not yet been established.”

It will be interesting to see the impact of this both at the micro level — the dynamics of the opium trade in the country — and the political level — how would it affect Chinese policy toward the Afghan conflict? I’m curious whether it will actually take two years to come about. Chinese goods are already carpeting the country, and China is the leading source of the precursor chemicals flowing into Afghanistan to convert opium to heroin.

At any rate, I’m still a fan of Mr. Costa, if for no other reason than this quote:

Costa said his request that the World Food Programme buy only Afghan wheat had been rejected by “free market ayatollahs who think political stability is less important than free market principles”.

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