On Tuesday, 5 December 2006, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing [sic] in re the nomination of former CIA head, former Iraq-Contra planner to head the largest bureaucracy in the largest government in the world. Starting about 9:40 the hearing [sic] began with platitudes and the standard introductions. His confirmation a fait accompli, each member of the committee was allotted six minutes to mug for the cameras, sneak in sound bytes and stake their party’s or personal claims for the 2008 presidential fight.
Lindsey Graham (R-SC) pushed Gates to say that Iran was the (real, new, re-emerging, only, worst, ad nauseum) boogeyman, ready to launch a nuclear attach against Israel. While Gates did not jump on the “let’s invade Iran now” bandwagon, when later questioned by Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), Gates took the time to bash an old enemy of freedom, the scourge of drugs!
About two and a half hours into his Senate Coronation ceremony, shortly after 12:00 noon, Senator Dole questioned Gates. Following her script, Dole drifted from the theme of the day, Iraq, and turned her focus to Afghanistan. But there would be no questions about extraordinary rendition, the resurgence of the Taliban, the nature and metrics of the American/NATO mission in Afghanistan, the peace accord between the Pakistani government of General Pervez Musharraf and Afghan warlords, or how and why the nominal head of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai (who relies on U.S. military escort to travel about Kabul) brought arms dealers, human rights violators, and opium barons into the government. Or when the U.S. military will no longer need to prop up the Karzai government. No, the discussion went this way:
Dole: … A [jointly issued UN] World Bank report was released on Afghanistan’s drug industry indicating that total opium cultivation in Afghanistan 2006 increased by 59% [over 2005 levels]. Afghanistan now accounts for 90% of global opium supply.
Of course, the drug trade in Afghanistan of has profound implications for the safety of our service men and women; and for the supply of heroin around the world, more and more of which is coming into the U.S.
Do we need to more aggressively [sic] confront this issue in Afghanistan? Does this require a more direct response by our military in terms of opium interdiction and targeting of opium production facilities?
Robert Gates: I think it’s very important. … A couple months ago I gave a speech … in Des Moines, Iowa, and addressed this issue. I think this is an area where the Department of Defense can make a contribution, certainly in interdiction … but this is one of those places … were other parts of the government need to go to war as well, including the Department of Agriculture.
Then Gates gave an example.
“A poppy grower really doesn’t have a diffuse market for his product. He’s got one person or one network buying. There is no market flexibility, he gets told what the price is – he can’t sell it anywhere else, his animals can’t eat it.
The notion [is] that the farmer gets so much money from growing poppies and drugs that crop substitution won’t work. The truth of the matter is that the farmer often doesn’t make much money [growing opium].
If we could get to work in terms of providing Afghan farmers with other [sic] alternative crops … and even subsidizing them to some extent, for a limited period, while they made a transition it … it would be a productive thing to do. … America’s land grant universities [can help]. Texas A&M is already on the ground in Tikrit, [Iraq], working on these kind of issues. There’s no reason why our universities cannot contribute to [fight the Drug War] as well …”
Aside from that last plug for Texas A&M which implied that thanks to the illegal invasion and toppling of Saddam, folks in Hussein’s home town of Tikrit are now forced to grow opium in order to survive in a country which no longer has functioning sewage systems, reliable electricity, or anything close to a functioning and stable society (Bush calls it spreading freedom), the scripted questions and answers flowed smoothly. Neither members of the Senate Coronation Committee nor the press bothered to challenge the assertions, assumptions, logic or declarations of Senator Dole or Dr. Gates.
So what does the UN/World Bank report actually say?
Though Senator Dole claimed that opium production was up 60 percent in Afghanistan, the report does not say that. It finds that the amount of land used to cultivate opium in Afghanistan grew by 61 percent. But the amount of opium produced three expanded by only 26 percent. That is, as a measure of tons per hectare (a 100 square meter plot), the efficiency of Afghan farmers is down 21 percent. Further for all the alarm presented by the self-described beneficiary of recreational drug use, Senator Dole, the UN/World Bank report claims that only four percent of all arable land in Afghanistan is used for opium cultivation. In stark contrast to Gates talk about the need for crop substitution and how farmers and their animals cannot eat opium (animals do eat poppies), 96 percent of all arable land in Afghanistan is already used for other crops.
Though the UN report claimed that opium accounts for one-third of the Afghan gross domestic product economy, the $2.6 billion opium market represents a lower share of the economy than in the recent past. To put the number in perspective, the Pentagon is spending about $8 billion a month in Iraq – which includes paying more than 100,000 mercenaries and service contractors. Currently with over 21,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, monthly costs of the U.S. occupation and military operations on the other war front run somewhere between $2-3 billion.
Nevertheless, Senator Dole said that this ever less-efficient opium economy has “profound” implications for U.S. military personnel. Why would that be? Surely she does not mean to imply that our brave troops will repeat the practices of those in Vietnam, or the Russian troops fighting in Afghanistan a generation ago? Both groups of mercenaries started using opium and heroin as a coping mechanism to deal with the brutality and inanity of a war of occupation.
She also overstates the case when she repeatedly claims that Afghanistan supplies 90% of the world’s opium. It just is not true. As reported by DRCnet and elsewhere, under current American law and international law, India and Turkey are given primacy to sell 80% of opium sold via export around the world. In addition, opium-laden poppy seeds are sold daily across America in grocery stores, at bagel shops and restaurants. Dole should have said that the UN/World Bank report insists that Afghanistan is responsible for 90% of the illegal opium trade. This begs the question, why is some opium good, so long as it is grown by the right people, standing on a particular piece of land?
Maybe Senator Dole should have read the report. The UN declares that the Karzai government, which was initially given a waiver by the Bush administration to permit opium production and not engage in eradication in 2002, now encourages both corruption, market consolidation and poverty through its opium eradication programs. The UN report said that the reality is that while the Taliban regime had helped to stem opium production (and was rewarded by the UN and the Bush administration in 2001), the U.S.-supported Karzai regime is responsible for exponential growth in Afghan opium.
Just as right-wing economist Milton Friedman advised, whenever a state creates black-markets, there will be a tendency for corruption and market consolidation in the hands of criminal syndicates. This is exactly what the UN report finds in Afghanistan. U.S. policy has only made matters worse. As farmers must pay bribes for the privilege of growing opium, they go further in debt either to corrupt Afghan police or local warlords who give them protection. As a result, they must plant more opium – on marginal land, hence lower output per hectare (the same is happening in Colombia with coca).
In light of what should be Republican party gospel about markets, the good Dr. Gates brought up the idea of crop substitution and subsidy programs. Again this old saw is a farce. According to U.S. government estimates, farmers in Afghanistan get 12 times more per acre for opium than food crops. So even while Gates insisted that farmers do not make that much money from selling opium, current food imports and “donations” from the U.S. and European Union, economic giants which subsidize food production so much that they put Afghan wheat farmers out of business, thanks to the West, there is little economic incentive for peasants in Afghanistan to get quit growing poppies.
And though DEA officials and others in the State Department allege that the resurging opium operation in Afghanistan can lead to the funding of another terrorist operation like that of 9/11 (which, if we believe the Bush administration’s story, was funded by oil and petrodollars, not drug trafficking), as explained by Peter Dale Scott in his book, Drugs, Oil and War, the truth is that as a matter of institutional survival and bureaucratic growth, federal bureaucracies need “illegal grow operations.” The existence of an enemy provides them with a purpose and American efforts to criminalize opium production only invigorates that market, as it adds to the financial incentive of blackmarketeers.
Ironically that Gates pushed a non-military option on the question of Afghani opium is consistent with the position of outgoing Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, and is favored by the troops on the ground who do not want to alienate ever-larger numbers of Afghanis who are skilled in guerrilla warfare. Apparently winning the hearts and minds is a real strategy for U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and they know that bombing opium caravans to Iran or using helicopter gunships to kill peasant farmers or burn crops is a bad idea. When will Senator Dole and the rest of the Congress join suit?