Winning Asymmetrical Warfare with Economic Policies and Measures
When facing asymmetric warfare conventional military measures are often highly ineffective. Thus, incorporating well-thought-out market and economic policies and measures into NATO's politico-military "toolbox" seems essential. Failing to do so, and failing to understand or comprehend market realities might even be directly harmful to NATO's goals as demonstrated by the case of Afghan drug industry and by the counternarcotic eradication programs in this article.
Since the beginning of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)'s mission to Afghanistan in 2001, the Alliance has had to face numerous threats emanating from its efforts to establish order and stabilize the country. Nonetheless, apart from the immediate threats imposed by the insurgents (Taliban and al-Qaeda in particular) the Afghan drug trade and opium production, which represents 90 % of world opium (Mikser 2012, 13), have remained the greatest long-term challenge facing both Afghanistan and NATO-led forces (Koenders 2006).
This has been caused especially by the fact that the Afghan's opium ‘industry' has long represented a key source of local terrorist financing (Goulet 2015, 5). It is estimated by some that the Afghan Taliban is dependent on opiate trafficking for about 95 % of its income (Hornak 2015). Furthermore, drug profit represents an instrument of political influence for Taliban, whose popularity with farmers in the rural areas skyrockets as they protect poppy growers from governmental authorities (Cook 2007).
Nonetheless, despite the efforts both NATO's and Afghan's policies to eliminate local drug industry have utterly failed. In specific, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has the Afghan's opium cultivation in 2014 reached a record high level - 224,000 hectars while in 2001, prior to the invasion, was Afghan's opium cultivation represented by ‘only' 8,000 hectars (UNODC 2014, 12). The main reason behind these negative results was the inability to appropriately comprehend economic and market realities and the fact that NATO still fails to adequately implement economic-analysis within its ‘toolbox' of measures when engaged with hybrid and asymmetrical warfare abroad.
In order to understand why most counternarcotic eradication measures in Afghanistan failed we need to analyze their impact on the opium's market price. As neither manual nor aerial eradication could in fact completely eliminate the opium production, the strategy led to only one outcome - increased market price of opium. Thus, creating a stronger incentives for more farmers to opt for poppy crops. In other words with one farm of opium being destroyed/eradicated, more farms of opium would be planted. Therefore, the eradication programs in Afghanistan should be suspended completely or, as Felbab-Brown recommends, should remain suspended with the exception of areas where a legal economy already exists and generates sufficient revenues (Felbab-Brown 2015, 1).
The opium market in Afghanistan is as all other markets based on economic realities and economic incentives. In fact, Taliban itself on numerous occasions implemented policies that had a direct impact on the opium's market price. For instance, in July 2000 Mullah Omar (Taliban's leader) banned opium poppy production in order to cut down the heroin supplies to the world market so that Taliban could later sell its old drug stores at a very high price (Voitenko 2003, 2-3). Similarly, the Taliban in 2010 reportedly withheld 12,400 tonnes of opium (worth of $1.25bn) from the market to keep its price at a profitable level (Syal 2010). As a result, it can be stated that to some extent Taliban has on several occasions implemented better policies in regard to the market principles than international community and NATO.
The success of Taliban's market policies must imply a question why has NATO not implemented measures that would focus on, for instance, lowering the opium price or alternatively that would focus on boosting the price of other crops, such as the wheat or pomegranate in order to provide different market incentives to local farmers. Taliban's dependency on opium trade is, as demonstrated above, essential and, therefore, diminishing drug industry in economic terms is crucial. In other words, NATO should primarily win the ‘war' on the market before it can move to the elimination of the Taliban itself. There are numerous, both macro and microeconomic, measures that could be implemented in order to achieve such results. Between 2002 and 2014 the USA alone provided more than $7bn for counter-narcotic efforts and programs (Patey 2014). However, most of these funds were channeled to the eradication programs that on many occasions proved ineffective as described above. Instead these funds could have been delivered into the Afghan market, for instance, in a form of a long-term mainly producer based subsidies for products such as wheat, thus increasing their price (In market terms subsidies are increasing the price from the producer perspective, but lowering it from the perspective of the buyer) and lowering the gap between the opium and other cereal crops revenues. Similarly, such funds could have been used, in agreement with the Afghan authorities, for the intervention buying of cereal crops in order to withheld part of its production from the market, thus, again boosting its market price. Moreover, there are in fact numerous proofs that the Afghan farmers are very perceptive to such price changes. This was particularly evident in 2009 when increased price of wheat represented one of the factors which undermined the opium production (Mullen 2009, 134). These are only some of economic instruments that could have been implemented in order to influence local market and, consequently, local farmers' incentives. However, overall it is essential to simply realize that NATO, more than ever before, should start reflecting deeper economic analysis and measures within its policies.
It is without a doubt that NATO is primarily a military, not economic, Alliance, however, when facing asymmetric warfare, such as the case of Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan, conventional military measures are often highly ineffective. Consequently, establishing sections/units focused on the economic-analysis when engaged abroad or incorporating well-thought-out market and economic policies and measures into its politico-military "toolbox" seems essential. Failing to understand or comprehend market realities might even be directly harmful to NATO's goals as demonstrated by the case of Afghan drug industry and, in particular, by the counternarcotic eradication programs. Finally, despite the NATO's military focus it needs to be highlighted that if Alliance wants to remain an effective organization even in a 21st century then expanding its scope into the field of economic and market measures analysis, especially when engaged in the asymmetric warfare, is essential.
Michal Bokša is a graduate of the University of Cambridge (MPhil in International Relations and Politics) who is currently affiliated with the NATO NDC in Rome, ITA. Any views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of an affiliated institution.
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