31 May 2011

Where's Glinda when you need her

Happy (belated) Memorial Day.  Not to rain on the parade, but SSG Joseph Hamski and TSgt Kristoffer Solesbee were killed last Thursday by an IED in Kandahar.  Please take a moment today to remember them and the other bright lights dimmed in this war and too many others.

Soldiers here face any number of regular dangers, the majority of which do not actually stem from the insurgents.  Case in point is the urchins that mill around the base walls, attempting to deal to the guards on tower duty.  According to my informant, their range of product is, if possibly a bit tame, it certainly notable for the diversity on offer (and he should know he assures me, as a member of the Massachusetts National Guard, which is apparently quite rife with substance abuse).  Alcohol, heroin, opium, hashish, flexoral, no-doz?  Children as young as ten confidently proclaim their procurement abilities. 

Drugs and conflict are, of course, natural allies.  The former begins as an ideal revenue service for latter.  As various industrious individuals come to realize that profit margins become substantively higher when there is no ideology to support, they morph to using the violence to subsidize the drugs.  Eventually, the entire end game of the endeavor alters and drugs develop into a self-sustaining enterprise.  Classic examples are found in Colombia, with the FARC and AUC, whose most famous drug-engendered offspring is arguably the Águilas Negras.  Mexico, of course, has its Zetas, which I distinguish from the myriad other cartels because of their background as Mexican Special forces and cartel protection racket.

The Taliban, like the mujahedeen before them, never really reached the point of swapping drugs for dogma.  Instead they remained war entrepreneurs, utilizing drugs to further their martial aims or consolidate their power-base.  Increasingly, however, this is some concern that select areas in Afghanistan are trending towards a criminalized cartel model.  German scholar Citha Maass makes such a case, tracing the development of a drug economy (contrasted to a war economy), in no small part due to the highly profitable combination of elastic production methods and inelastic demand.  UNDOC agrees.  They cite the collusion of insurgent groups, including the Taliban, Haqqani network, and HiG, with dedicated drug traffickers and criminal gangs organized along tribal lines, in addition to running their own protection rackets or imposing cultivation taxes.  None of these loose affiliations reaches cartel proportions; there is no ability to setting internationally or even within Afghanistan, and few heroin-related turf wars, as yet. 

The majority of poppy cultivation and refinement occurs in seven provinces, with lion’s share in Helmand.  That is where I find myself today, in the middle of a fairly intense dust storm.  This is also the hottest I’ve been since leaving Qatar last summer.  Leatherneck (the massive Marine base I’m staying at) strikes me as the interplanetary love child of Venus and the Moon – hot and barren.  It turns out that the drought crippling much of the country, while responsible for the interminable dust here, does have an upside.  According to UNDOC, it’s contributing to a decrease in drug production.  Poppies are a hearty plant, but not quite this hearty.  In other dubiously good news?  Apparently, the world food crisis made wheat more profitable crop than poppies.  When combined with the over-production of opium in the last few years (the market has become so saturated that 2010 was apparently the year in a row that supply outweighed demand), the profitability of poppies dropped below that of wheat.  The free market seems to work better than the DEA.  Sorry, world hunger.  UNDOC also credits good governance, but where’s the fun in that?

I was tickled to learn that, in addition to being the world’s largest producer of illicit opiates including heroin and morphine (no surprise there), Afghanistan is starting to gain a monopoly in hashish.  Since when is heroin the gateway drug to hash?  According to my co-workers, they also commonly smok dried apple skin and powered scorpion, mixing these ingredients in with tobacco in hookah pipes.  I wonder why those options aren’t on offer to the tower guards.

If you need a break from reading about Afghanistan, two other places with rather fascinating drug trafficking issues are Mozambique (the NYT had a better story, but somehow my link broke) and Guatemala.  The former is, like many states, trying to cope with a national hero being named an international drug kingpin by the US, while the latter is apparently well on its way to becoming more dangerous than Mexico. 

If, however, you’d prefer to stay with Afghanistan but don’t really care about drugs, Afghan Conflict Monitor has a great story regarding DDR.  Considering the billions we’ve dropped on this country to stop drug production, you’d think voluntary DDR for Taliban might be a better solution to stop the adding to the list of names to remember today.