Rural populations have long played a role in questions of power changes disproportionate to their numbers or wealth. Presumably, a major reason for this is due to the rural populations’ ownership, control, and familiarity with a disproportionate amount of real estate. Bill Ardolino, writing in the Long War Journal, has an interesting vignette reflecting on the intersection between insurgency, counterinsurgency, and agricultural economics.
Initially, the issue seems to be one of a basic turf war between the Taliban and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) over the ownership and control of a bazaar in a rural part of the Now Zad district in the notorious Helmand province, with a suspicious, if a bit bullied, rural population standing between the two parties. Just beneath that surface, however, is a tale of economic oppression that’s a level beyond the basic, mob-style intimidation and “protection” we’ve been taught to expect; an economic oppression that seems to be lifted from the pages of the history of agriculture in the post-Civil War American South:
And perhaps a majority of area residents are effectively indentured servants of the Taliban, beholden to insurgent drug lords through the credit system established by the Akhundzada family during their rule of Helmand in the 1980s and 1990s. Farmers receive start-up capital in the form of money, goods, and services that enable them to feed their families while cultivating a poppy crop. After the harvest, the borrowers owe a certain yield to the creditors, regardless of weather, the health of the crop, or other factors. If this debt is not repaid, the farmer falls further into debt or can be subject to beatings and even murder. The locals’ resulting servile fear of the Taliban makes cooperation with Americans and the Afghan government security forces an untenable proposition.
This is a system very similar to that which kept Southern cotton sharecroppers, black and white, indebted and impoverished for so long. In the South, tenant farmers borrowed from the owners of the land they worked to pay for the year’s expenses, with the intention of repaying the debt with the return on the cotton crop at the end of the year. Economically, this was unsustainable for the tenant farmer because the value of the crop was less than the expenses incurred in growing it and subsisting over the year, so they began each spring further in debt than the last. Furthermore, due to the long growing season and labor-intensive work required by cotton, the tenant farmers were unable to supplement their income through any other work.
A similar system of indebted servitude seems to have developed in the poppy-growing regions of Afghanistan. The refugee farmers migrated to the area, presumably after the cessation of hostilities with the Soviet Union, and found themselves going into debt to survive on the land. The article implies that in this situation, the farmers don’t find themselves in deepening debt in the exact same manner as Southern tenant farmers did, but the effect is basically the same. After all, if they find themselves in debt incurred to begin growing poppies on the land, only poppy-cultivation will produce enough money to continue operating and surviving, and remain clear of their Taliban lenders.
As if that weren’t enough of an issue, it’s not just the cost of maintaining their debts that limits these farmers to growing poppies:
…Water is so expensive, once it’s lifted to the surface, poppy is the only crop that is profitable enough to justify the expense, and there is enough profit left to grow a subsistence amount of wheat to feed the family and maybe sell a little bit on the side.
Not surprisingly, agriculture in a very dry region depends on water. This particular location grew up as a result of there being water beneath the soil. Unfortunately, this particular reserve of ground water is deep enough to require a 100-meter deep well. That has its own expense; the isolated nature of the area drives the price of fuel very high, and, without electrical infrastructure, only petroleum-powered generators are available to operate the water pumps. Therefore, irrigating any crop is going to be extremely expensive.
Of course, opium poppies aren’t the most approved crop available, even if they are the most sustainable economically. As noted below, the poppy is about to become an illegal crop, though the effects may not be all that different. One of the reasons the Taliban did so much to encourage poppy growth was not just the aforementioned cycle of indebtedness, but also because growing an illegal drug puts the farmers immediately outside of the normal authority of law, and into the authority and control of the Taliban’s version of the law. The threats and intimidation keep the population under Taliban control, as does the inability, as a criminal by livelihood, to appeal to the civil and national authority in any disputes.
Complicating the issue, the government has declared the growth of poppy illegal during the next year’s season, and those caught growing it will be subject to property seizure and the destruction of the crop. The scope of poppy cultivation in the valley is so massive that any enforcement will necessarily be selective, and thus ripe for corruption, and the farmers claim that the risk will not deter them.
“I’ve talked to a lot of these farmers, and asked them, ‘Are you going to grow poppy next year, or grow an alternate crop?’ And they’re going to go back to poppy,” said Pion. “Even after I’ve explained to them that ‘the government is going to come back in here, kick you off your property, take your farm, tell you to go away and burn your crop.’ They’re going to roll those dice.”
“Until the government, the American people, or someone provides water for us, we will never grow wheat,” said one elder.
Thus far, the problem has seemed intractable – a cycle of debt, an arid and isolated environment, and a system designed to encourage poppy cultivation and only poppy cultivation all conspiring to create this undesirable system. The last word from the tribal elder, however, offers a glimmer of opportunity. He’s open to growing other crops, if only it becomes economically feasible. This isn’t surprising, for two reasons. First, of course, is that despite attitudes flouting the government’s crackdown on poppies, as well as the high probability of avoiding any consequences whatsoever, most farmers would rather not be involved in the conflict over poppy cultivation at all. Second, though somewhat less provable, is the negative attitude of a very conservative culture toward cultivating drugs. This has been mentioned by David Kilcullen and others as a potential wedge issue between an anti-poppy conservative populace and the pro-poppy Taliban. Regardless of the reasons, the elder quoted above expresses an attitude of willingness to move on from farming poppies.
Not surprisingly, the main obstacle to switching crops is water. Or at least, that’s the explicit issue. Implicit in the desire for affordable water is the need for affordable power to run the wells. One option that worked in part to mitigate part of the Southern issues mentioned above, is rural electrification. While stretching power lines all over the wilds of Afghanistan is an admirable goal, in a conflict environment, it’s neither an economical nor a security-conscious solution. That limits the possible solutions to locally-generated power, which in turn whittles down to fuel subsidies, the installation of a sufficient amount of alternative energy capacity, either through solar panels or windmills, or some combination of the three. Using windmills to pump ground water is not exactly a novel concept, and that they don’t use it in this case, one wonders if the geography of the area precludes this option for one reason or another. Regardless, windmills, and especially solar panels, are susceptible to vandalism by upset former landlords, while fuel generators have obviously proven to be maintainable by the population.
Of course, getting affordable power to extract irrigation water isn’t the only issue confronting the people of the Now Zad district. As is being discovered throughout the developing world, the ability to market a crop can often be more important economically than the ability to grow it in the first place. However, in the area in the article, the local market is afoul of national law, in addition to historically being little more than an open-air black market. Therefore, ISAF forces are preparing to destroy the bazaar, and force market activity within the realm of the law to be carried out in another area of the district.
The decision to destroy the Salaam Bazaar is hugely unpopular. Local farmers rely on the shops to support their farming operations, including the sale of supplies, food, and services offered by welders and mechanics.
“We need the bazaar, like when we need to buy cooking materials, sugar, tea, flour,” said one elder. “If you want to buy some stuff you cannot go to [Now Zad district center] or Gareshk - if we want to go there, we have to pay the taxi 200 Pakistani rupees for one way.
It’s not just supplies for daily life that become an issue, although they’re obviously a concern to the folks who need them. Larger than that is the ability to turn whatever the farmers grow into money. Right now, that’s not an issue, because opium basically is money in Now Zad. In a post-opium Helmand, however, the farmers will need a market in which to exchange their grain for currency. The government’s desire to control this sort of transaction more easily by limiting the available marketplaces is understandable. However, it may not be the most sustainable, at least in the short term. In Afghanistan, there’s no infrastructure of marketers or Boards of Trade comparable to the one in the United States. One will develop, as one has developed in parts of Africa, through the use of cellular SMS networks. This, of course, is dependent on not only that communication infrastructure, but something more important to the greater counterinsurgency effort: The currency of the government of Afghanistan must be the stable currency of the realm.
There are limitless opportunities for entrepreneurial Afghans in the stabilization of a post-poppy economy. Unfortunately, that’s a friendlier way of saying there are still even more things that need to be done, including storage and transportation of crops, before the system itself is economically viable. There’s a lot more work to be done, and it seems as though the area is going to fall prey to economy-of-force calculations, which will prevent any long-term efforts to assist in fully extracting the people of Now Zad from the control of their Taliban landlords.
Some American intelligence officials assert that disrupting the Taliban influence centered in the bazaar, despite the harm to the local farmers, is the only way to begin to remove locals from their indentured servitude to area drug lords.
In addition, the option of leaving the market in place under government control would present new challenges. Some American officials believe the Afghan government should allow the locals to maintain and tax “a cluster of shops,” but also note that doing so would require enough security forces to hold the area.
Despite the official decisions which solve the symptom, but not the problem, perhaps there is a little headway being made, given option of a bureaucratic euphemism excusing the existence of a bazaar in the same location. Regardless of bureaucratic flexibility, however, the long-term solutions will come from the same solutions that modernizing agriculture have seen the world over, from powering wells, to supporting transport of crops to market, to democratizing the decision to market crops at given prices. All of these solutions, not to mention maintaining a stable currency and secure roads, are obviously easier said than done in a fluid conflict environment such as the frontiers of Afghanistan. Given the historical and strategic importance of disproportionately small rural people on disproportionately-large tracts of terrain, however, giving these solutions a chance to alter the face of the conflict will be necessary if the ISAF hopes to create a long-term solution to the Taliban control of rural Helmand province.