Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Decentralization of the drug trade

Tequila over at Tubestroker is linking to the Christian Science Monitor's summary of the International Crisis Group's thoughts on what to do about poppy production, and the black market economy fueled by opiate production in Afghanistan. He reviews the options and summarizes the ICG's recommendations as the following:

their recommended solution consists of targeting the top 25 traffickers, destroying international drug networks, expelling corrupt officials, developing the countryside, and government reform.

Long experience with the drug trade in South America shows that points 1 and 2 are achievable. The last three, however, are typically forgotten and yet the most critical to long-term success. That’s why Plan Colombia has been a failure -

Even if points 1 and 2 are achievable, is there an actual impact on the quantity, quality or the price of drugs available in the main consumer markets? If there is a change, then these policies may be worth pursuing. If there is no significant change in a positive manner, then these policies are not worth pursuing. Using South American cocaine as the primary example, we can look at some of the trend data to ask about the impact of going after high level traffickers and large scale networks.

I am using the 2003 White House Drug Policy Price/Purity report for data. When the data for the report was collected, the United States had been embarked on a multi-decade campaign against large scale international smuggling AND identifiable large scale cartel leaders. The time period should provide a useful data set to see if actively campaigning against these two nodes in the distribution and consumption networks would severely crimp the network's ability to supply high purity drugs at ever decreasing prices to a wider audience.

Cumulatively, powder cocaine prices have declined by roughly 80 percent since 1981, with the average price of one expected pure gram of cocaine purchased at Q1 (i.e., 0.1 to 2.0 bulk grams) costing approximately $107 in 2003.....(p.7)

The crack series display many of the same prominent features as the powder cocaine series: sharp price declines during the 1980s through 1989, an even more pronounced (30 to 45 percent) one-year increase from 1989 to 1990, and gradual modest declines at levels Q2 and Q3 during the 1990s, with prices at the end of the 1990s about 10 percent below those in 1989..... Q2 and Q3 crack prices reached all-time lows in 2003, Q1 crack prices did not.

On the drugs that the United States has spent the most money and effort to dismantle the centralized cartels and smuggling networks, the long term trends have been that these efforts have not been able to put a sustained tax much less blockage of the flow of drugs into the United States. This is despite the fact that the United States is minimally involved in any guerrilla wars, and has the cooperation of governments with significantly more local power, reach and competence than the government of Afghanistan.

If it is true that the efforts to go after identifiable cocaine leadership cadres and smuggling networks can only produce tactical successes that can not overwhelm strategic failure, then I question whether or not it makes sense to replicate this strategy in Afghanistan.

The major drug smugglers and drug distribution leadership in Afghanistan are exhibiting a certain skill set towards organizing diffuse interests, mediating conflict in a criminal enterprise, gaining trust of locals and creating profits are skill sets that the United States could use. [h/t Zen Pundit. The drug economy in Afghanistan is not naturally allied with the Taliban. Instead, it has been a recent alliance of convenience as the drug economy buys protection from the Taliban against the United States and the Afghan central government.

This alliance provides the Taliban and other fighters in Afghanistan with significant cash flow. If this cash flow can be crimped or stopped, the Taliban becomes significantly less capable of conducting large scale combat operations absent any other factor increasing their support [I'm looking at you Pakistani ISI].

Furthermore, if the United States does adapt the policy of going after kingpins and the larger scale smuggling networks, the evolutionary response of these groups and individuals is to fragment and decentralize in a manner that make them harder to track, more resilient to infiltration and more likely to expand into new markets of smuggling and black market supply.

Is doing nothing, instead of something about Afghani opium production the best of the bad choices available? I think doing nothing besides removing the incentive for the protective alliance between the drug production/distribution leadership and the Taliban may be the best of the bad choices available.

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