The Corner

New Crops for Afghanistan

Jim Geraghty notes at the “Campaign Spot” that Barack Obama has suggested that unnamed commanders on the ground in Afghanistan have, in personal conversations with him, mentioned that they would find a couple of agriculture specialists more useful than another platoon. Jim notes that this entirely undermines Obama’s (and Hillary’s) argument that “we’re losing Afghanistan because all of our troops are in Iraq.”

If you talk to, if you talk to, commanders on the ground there, they’ll tell you, “I’d rather, instead of having another platoon, I’d like to have a couple of agricultural specialists.” We need more troops on the ground in Afghanistan, but we also need to teach them to grow things other than poppy. Right? And that’s something that we simply have not focused on. So that’s an excellent question, and it’s going to be one of the central challenges of my administration.

Actually, that isn’t remotely true. We, in the form of the DEA, have been sending specialists out to Afghanistan since the 1980s to persuade them, by carrot or stick, to stop growing opium poppies. Crop substitution is a central component of poppy eradication efforts. One year, large swaths of northern Pakistan and areas over the border in Afghanistan were planted with onions. That worked.

There is nothing complicated about why our many attempts have failed, or, at best, only temporarily displaced poppy growth. Market incentives have operated on small, very poor, former subsistence farmers, who got so much more cash for poppy than foodstuffs that it wasn’t a choice. The current Afghan administration has been unwilling to eradicate opium poppies because it would otherwise face a rebellion it can’t afford.

Furthermore, for the last 30 years or so, the bare minimum of roads and market infrastructure Afghanistan did possess have been diverted to other uses by war, and, ultimately bombed back to the stone age. You can’t convince farmers to grow their famous melons and apricots if they will inevitably rot for want of a market.

So, Senator Obama should learn that it is the market, abetted by terrorists who process and run the heroin to the West, and profit from it, that has left poppies in place, not the lack of agricultural specialists in the military. Indeed there can be no farming until the military renders local areas safe, which is best done with soldiers. But now, the market dynamics are changing, and may become helpful in the effort against poppies.

This morning NPR had a piece noting that the price of bread, which has risen everywhere, is taking a terrible toll in Afghanistan. People are paying as much as half of their (paltry) wages now just for flatbread (naan) to feed their families. International aid agencies are helping 20 percent of the population avoid starvation.

Normally this would be an untimitigated disaster. But — call him heartless — the Afghan Minister of Commerce noted in the piece that there was a silver lining. And that is that as food prices rise, and given increasingly better roads and other infrastructure, farmers will have real reasons to plant wheat instead of poppies. They can adapt quickly. That won’t solve the hunger problem, but it’s still progress.

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