Where have all the Chicago Boys gone?

Patrick Knapp Freelance Writer
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As much as Congressman Ron Paul may enjoy ascribing the “neo-con” badge of shame to his hawkish opponents, he risked earning himself the demagogic “neo-lib” tag with his reply to a November presidential debate question on foreign aid: “We should export maybe some principles about free markets and sound money, and maybe they could produce some of their own wealth.” This is refreshing advice, yet unfortunately when it comes to applying it where it would save the most American lives — i.e., Afghanistan — many Ron Paulites and classical liberals seem more concerned with distancing themselves from “neo-con” nation-building than following Milton Friedman’s lead of pro-actively teaching the world to fish. Indeed, while ending the war on drugs was a top priority for Friedman in his final years, the political calculations of his acolytes remain a key hindrance to rethinking the prohibition of Afghanistan’s most lucrative resource.

While poppy is conspicuously missing from the strategic debate, in Afghanistan’s plains it’s unavoidable. Last spring I drove to the outskirts of Tarin Kot, Uruzgan to purchase cows for Mahmad, a beneficiary of a U.S.-funded aid program. With the governor’s mansion only a few miles away, an ocean of humid poppy fields enveloped us — masses of the opiate, as it were. Afghan soldiers posed leisurely for Facebook photos as police jeeps snaked past. Officially, the stuff glistening for miles was illegal. Unofficially, it was quite popular — and as legal as a flat-rate bribe.

Mahmad, who was receiving aid because his son was killed when collecting candy from ISAF soldiers by a Taliban suicide-bomber, told me he would sell the cows’ milk to repay his farming debts. “What crops do you grow?” I asked. “Wheat,” he replied. Everyone listening laughed at the perfunctory lie (one readily celebrated by Alternative Livelihood Program technocrats).

As U.S. strategists grow increasingly desperate to wind Afghanistan down to a tolerable stalemate without putting more American lives at risk, turning to delusional fix-alls such as negotiating an end-game with the Taliban, there is a growing consensus that no option (save military escalation) is off the table. Yet the refusal of supply-siders to dirty themselves in Afghanistan War policy means that poppy legalization and its corresponding blow to Taliban drug monopolies and government kickback schemes remains not only ruled out, but politically taboo.

Conventional wisdom has it that a U.S.-Afghanistan version of the existing U.S.-Turkey and U.S.-India poppy-for-medicine agreements is a nonstarter, considering Afghanistan’s weak rule of law. But this makes little sense given our strategy of inching toward peace negotiations with Mullah Omar and our goal of ending the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in mid-2013. If the rule of law can accommodate these high-risk courses of action, surely it can also accommodate one that relinquishes corrupt state power to the free market. Secondary arguments about using our poppy policy to keep Turkey and India — as well as Russia and Iran — happy suggest a relapse to Kissingerist morals. They also put faith in the idea that Russia, whose U.N. ambassador cryptically threatened this week to “hurt” U.S. interests in Afghanistan due to the U.S. position on Syria, responds amicably to tribute.

Most problematic is that the current policy, an evolution from prohibition to eradication (i.e., torching the livelihoods of rural peasants) to high-level interdiction of Afghanistan’s Al Capones, has failed. Not only have 10 years and billions of dollars of U.S.-funded counter-narcotics initiatives brought us poppy cultivation levels nearly twice as high as those during non-prohibition Taliban years (in 2011 alone, despite 521 ANSF-ISAF interdiction missions, opium production increased by 61% and prices by 133%), but it has also created a dark underworld of drug lords and their extorted debtors.

Mahmad tragically lost a child, and was thus eligible for aid to pay off his poppy debt. But many poppy farmers, as PBS’s “Opium Brides” documentary startlingly revealed last month, choose to give their children to the Taliban in order to pay their poppy debts. ISAF’s newspaper boasted last week that 2011’s interdiction operations “hobbled the ability of the enemies of peace to harm Afghans and prevent them from living peaceful, prosperous lives.” But in reality, they’ve only heightened the debt collectors’ urgency. As Michael Hastings puts it in the recently released book “The Operators,” “U.S. forces are not fighting and dying to combat terrorists, but are fighting and dying in local political disputes.”

With Afghanistan on the brink of an aid bubble burst and even Taliban purists calling counter-narcotics initiatives the “obliteration of the economy,” the folly of Carrie Nation nation-building is increasingly clear. Security strategist Anthony Cordesman warned last week that as Afghanistan braces for “massive capital flight,” its security force development is “in a state of total confusion,” with major elements that “cannot possibly be ready to stand on their own by the end of 2014.” Indeed, having been personally stopped at gunpoint by high policemen in Kandahar City, I’d hazard that lack of training is not their only impediment to standing straight.

With such a clear case for rolling back poppy prohibition, where are the Chicago Boys when you need them? The Economist magazine, which has fawned over “heavy weight champ” Friedman, and even taunted European leaders last month on the 100th anniversary of the International Opium Convention for lacking “the cojones” to legalize narcotics, lamented in December that only “glacial progress” has been made in interdicting Afghan opium. Meanwhile, Reason’s Brian Doherty concluded last week that the lesson of Afghanistan is not to do “nation-building affairs more intelligently” (which might require signing Reason’s name to a neo-con blunder), but rather “to not get involved in them at all.” Cato, for its part, managed in its latest Afghanistan study to argue for a drastic 80-90% troop cut without once mentioning opium.

If the neo-libs could speak, they would tell a convincing tale about how legalization would bring the health benefits of transparency, build up the capital Afghans need to restore their destroyed fruit orchards and hardly offer new opportunities for abuse in a country whose poison-stocked pharmacies require no prescriptions. They might cite the growing consensus reflected in the Drug Commission Report of June 2011 or Christopher Snowdon’s prescient new book “The Art of Suppression.” They might counter the ISAF jurisprudence of opium as “haram” by quoting farmers well inside Taliban territory who say “we will die for it.” But until they gain the “cojones,” their tragic nation-building prophecy will be self-fulfilling.

Patrick Knapp is a U.S. Army officer who recently returned from a year working in a civilian capacity as a field officer for an aid program in Kandahar City, Afghanistan.