Has Obama just paid Lieberman’s price?

A conspiracy theory, a conjecture, call it what you will–but isn’t it possible that Lieberman’s price for his health-care vote is more troops for Afghanistan?

CBS reported today that President Obama has decided to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan.  (The White House denies any decision has been made.  h/t for both: Steve Benen.)  In other news from a couple of weeks back, Harry Reid said that Joe Lieberman’s threatened filibuster of the health bill, though it seemed pretty serious, was “the least of Harry Reid’s problems.” (Andy Sabl notes that Harry Reid shares Bob Dole’s odd habit of referring to himself in the third person.)

I have no evidence for the following.  It’s not even speculation.  But it is, I think, a natural worry, so here goes: What if we’ve just seen the terms of a deal?  Lieberman cares much more about Afghanistan than about any domestic issue–and his explanations for his filibuster threat don’t even make sense. The reverse is probably true of Obama. And so the bargain might be struck.

I’d love to be wrong.  I almost certainly am wrong.  But while I think that 99 percent of conspiracy theories deserve less attention than they get, I regard this one as among the 1 percent that deserves more attention than it’s getting.  I’d like to see someone ask Lieberman to deny it, and to stake something on the denial.

Bringing down the curtain on the Afghan election farce

Now what?

Let’s see if I have this timeline correct:

1.  Afghanistan had a vote for President in which there was such massive ballot fraud that it was impossible to tell whether Hamid Karzai had gotten over the 50% threshold to win outright.

2.  The “Independent Election Commission,” which consists of Hamid Karzai’s appointees, finally bowed to  pressure from the U.S. and other donors, admitted that a first-round winner couldn’t be determined, and agreed to do a runoff.

3.  Great rejoicing in Washington about the vindication of democracy in Afghanistan.

4.  The commission then decided to expand the number of polling places in areas where voting couldn’t actually take place, thus paving the way for even more fraud the second time around.

5.  The commission chair openly predicted another Karzai victory in the runoff.

6.  Abdullah Abdullah, the second-place finisher, withdrew from an obviously fixed contest. 

7.  The commission announced that the runoff would take place just the same.

8.  Hillary Rodham Clinton announced that the withdrawal didn’t reduce the legitimacy of the runoff.  (Which was true enough:  the legitimacy of the runoff was already at zero.)

9.  The commission then changed its mind and proclaimed Karzai the winner.  (Thank Heaven for small mercies.)

10.  The U.S. government congratulated President Karzai on his victory.

I’m still looking for an example of a successful counterinsurgency campaign mounted on behalf of a government as weak, corrupt, and unpopular as Karzai’s.   That doesn’t mean I think I know what to do in Afghanistan; I don’t.  But despite all the yapping from McCain, Boehner, Kristol, Lieberman & Co. about having to hurry up to double down on Karzai, I’m glad to see a deliberate and deliberative decision-making process on this one.  Insofar as we have any leverage at all over the Karzai regime, we will have less once he has the commitment for more American troops.

In his congratulatory phone call to Karzai, Barack Obama told him, roughly, to clean up his act.  Good.

No jewels, no crowns.

James Vega’s urgent case for rejecting counterinsurgency in Afghanistan—and the imperial mission that the counterinsurgency model, surprisingly, requires.

Over at The Democratic Strategist, James Vega has an outstanding  new strategy memo out on what we should be aiming at in Afghanistan (in two parts in .html, here and here, or one .pdf file here).

Vega argues, and makes a disturbingly good case, that the counterinsurgency model embraced by General McChrystal is far more ambitious than it sounds.  It commits us to providing such a high level of so many public services for so long that we’d essentially have to rule the country as an imperial power—sending hundreds of thousands of troops to stay in Afghanistan, and more or less to run the place, for decades.  He shows how some neoconservatives think this is just fine: they openly endorse the British imperial model.  He judges, wryly, that few Americans will find this thrilling.

The memo is particularly good on how the counterinsurgency model locks us in to an objective of total victory. It defines all insurgents essentially as terrorists, leaves no room for the category “civil war,” can imagine no U.S. role in negotiating settlements short of annihilating all bad guys, and rules out crucial distinctions between the people we really do have an interest in fighting fiercely (Al Qaeda) and those we can perfectly well cut deals with (“the Taliban,” broadly understood). Wesley Clark’s peacekeeping model, on the other hand, would let us set big but limited goals and stop fighting when we reach them.  Vega points out that the deals that General Petraeus cut with the Sunni Awakening  in Iraq were, though we deny it linguistically, inconsistent with counterinsurgency doctrine, and much closer to peacekeeping.

Vega closes by pleading that we not let neoconservative appeals to manliness or courage lure us into this victory-or-death way of defining our objectives.

The truth is that there is nothing weak or inferior about the role our soldiers are playing in Afghanistan today. Throughout military history – from the borders of the Roman Empire to the walls of Constantinople, at the gates of Vienna and on the Hungarian plains, soldiers have stood on ramparts and watchtowers to guard their homes and countries against attack by foreign invaders – Goths, Huns, Mongols and Ottoman Turks. Standing guard to defend one’s home and country against attack is as heroic and honorable a task as any in military life.

The covert imperial ambitions of the Neoconservatives — ambitions that lead them to disparage anything except the total domination of another country and complete “victory” over any indigenous groups who refuse to submit to U.S. rule — do a profound disservice to America.

Let us say it clearly. A sensible and limited military mission is not the same as a surrender and a second attempt to expend American lives and resources in an arrogant attempt to transform a complex Muslim country into a pro-American utopia is not heroic, manly, brave or strategically wise.

I hope the President is listening.

Hamid van Thieu?

We seem to be committed to a counterinsurgency campaign on behalf of a government than can’t govern. I’ve seen this movie before, and didn’t like the ending.

I don’t have a strong view on what to do in Afghanistan.   Losing seems like a lousy option. But even accepting for the purposes of argument that it’s a “war of necessity,” necessity does not imply feasibility.   If the Karzai regime can’t put on a credible show of governing, will putting more boots on the ground do anything but stir up nationalistic resentment? We seem to be committed to a counterinsurgency campaign on behalf of a government that can’t govern. I’ve seen this movie before, and I didn’t like the way it ended.

The figure that keeps bugging me is that our annual expenditure in Afghanistan is several times the Afghan GDP.   If I were in charge, I’d be thinking very hard about the mechanics of handing out enough cash – the way I figure it, something like $4b/yr. – to abolish poverty in every part of Afghanistan not under Taliban control.

Why growing opium in Afghanistan will not help treat pain in Africa

James Wimberley’s plea to do something about the under-treatment of pain in Africa (and other parts of the developing world) addresses a problem that has received less attention than it deserves, partly because pain, unlike death, isn’t very easy to count.   His first-choice solution is to buy opium in Afghanistan to make into opiates to be used in Africa, thus providing Afghan poppy farmers with a licit outlet for their crop as well as relieving pain.  As a fallback, James proposes producing more opium where licit opium is already produced.

Whether providing a licit outlet for Afghan poppy-farmers is the best way to help them, whether doing so would reduce the production of opium for illicit purposes in Afghanistan, and whether reducing illicit poppy-growing is in fact worthwhile objective, are all interesting questions.   My tentative answer to each of them would be “N0.”

But putting that aside, James’s proposal assumes that the reason, or at least a reason, that pain patients in Africa don’t get enough opiates is that there aren’t enough opiates around.   This, however, seems not to be the case.  Custom, poor doctoring, and regulation can all lead to under-treatment of pain (a problem not unknown in the United States, for example).

Opiates are naturally cheap.  A standard pain-relieving dose of morphine for a non-tolerant patient would be roughly 30 milligrams.  It takes about 10 milligrams of opium to make 1 milligram of morphine.  Licit opium in India sells for about $30 a kilogram.  So for $30 you can have enough opium to make 100 grams of morphine: $0.30 per gram.  Thus the opium in a standard dose of morphine costs a little less than a penny.   Of course processed morphine costs more than that, but growing more opium in Afghanistan won’t change processing costs.

Conclusion:  The price of opium is not among the barriers to pain treatment in poor countries.   I applaud James’s refusal to bow down to the idols of the tribe, but I fear that his proper irreverence has, in this case led him into a form of commodity fetishism.

Footnote The academic paper James refers to is Victoria A. Greenfield, Letizia Paoli, and Peter H. Reuter, “Is Medicinal Opium Production Afghanistan’s Answer?  Lessons From India,” forthcoming in the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis.

Idols of the tribes

Sourcing morphine for the poor from Afghan opium: I retract some intemperate language but not the idea.

A partial retraction on opium

In my last rant on Afghan opium, still pushing what seems to me the sound ploy of buying the crop to expand pain relief in poor countries, I accused the drug warriors in the policy establishment of ignoring the idea out of “pathological tunnel vision.” Mark, who is unlike me a card-carrying drugs policy expert, tells me I’m wrong. The plan, in the form presented by ICOS, has caused a stir, is being looked at in Washington, and there’s even a draft paper submitted to a leading journal criticising it. So my accusation is factually wrong and I’m glad to withdraw it. (I wasn’t to know; the public sphere is still silent.)

How about the tunnel vision? It’s sans objet as the French say. But my language was I hear resented. “Pathological” went too far so I also retract that. I didn’t say and and didn’t mean to suggest that the policymakers are personally indifferent to African cancer sufferers, just professionally so, because they don’t see it as their job. Recognizing that most of the world’s problems can’t be your business is the only way for any of us to stay sane and get anything done. I’m not for instance doing anything just now to help the local cancer charity shop or foreign prisoners in Spanish jails: there are plenty of volunteers for the former and I don’t have the skills for the latter, so public-policy blogging looks a better use of my time.

I’m not retracting anything more than this. Accusing experts of tunnel vision, aka cognitive bias, is a cheap shot because it’s almost always true. Part of what it means to be an expert is to belong to a community with broadly shared assumptions about what problems are important, what analytical approaches are legitimate, which past work is a fundamental reference point, and where the debate takes place. If you have a hammer, problems tend to look like nails. As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his great The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, scientific progress in normal, non-revolutionary times depends on a mesh of such assumptions. Scholars cannot do real work if everything always has to be argued from first principles. You do not have to accept Kuhn’s more extreme claims about the cognitive incommensurability of different paradigms to accept the plain truth of this weaker, sociological version.

If you like, each scientific community is a work gang of miners chipping away inside its own tunnel. Nothing stops the miners from exploring other coalfaces. But as a matter of fact, and reflecting their professional incentives,  most do not.

Francis Bacon started the analysis of cognitive bias with his picturesque fourfold scheme of idols that our minds falsely bow down to: of the tribe (innate human tendencies), the cave (individual temperament and social roles), the market-place (from semantic confusion and the tyranny of words), and the theatre (from sophistry and false learning). Great stuff, but his belief that we could at one bound escape the four idols with his terrific invention of the scientific method was hopelessly optimistic, as Kuhn showed. Each tribe of scientists still carries its handy portable altars. The crucial point is not an impossible blank slate, but the possibility of self-correction and objective learning imposed by the covenant of all the tribes to accept the ultimate sovereignty of facts; the principle honoured in the title of this blog.

Where am I going with this? Evaluating ICOS’ and my proposal, if you are going to do it properly, requires three sets of expertise: public health, on the delivery of pain relief in poor countries; counter-insurgency, on running programmes in villages to help Afghan farmers and cut the flow of funds to the Taliban; and drugs policy, on the risks of diversion and the impact on the supply of illegal opiates. Since it’s uncertain whether any interventions in a single country can significantly affect the global illegal supply and reduce heroin abuse at home, I don’t see how the drugs policy perspective can be particularly useful here, and it certainly shouldn’t dominate.

I also suspect that the cognitive bias of the drugs policy field includes pessimism. Drug abuse, like child abuse, the cycle of poverty, suicide, murder and other social ills is highly intractable: the aim of policy is to contain and if possible reduce the evil, knowing that many attempts to make things better have actually made them worse. Public health and counter-insurgency types tend to be optimistic: quite reasonably in the former case, as they can look back on a long roster of defeated diseases; far less so in the latter, where the list of successes is short and their human cost often appalling. Anyway they’d be more likely to see new stuff as worth trying.

Since we can’t escape cognitive bias simply by knowing more, problems of framing are also inescapable. You can only apply a systematic utilitarianism from a vantage-point, like mine, of superficial pauciscience. Still, I think we pauciscients can still be useful, just by asking new and annoying questions that cross traditional boundaries of expertise and bureaucratic competence.

You can see the way this works out very well in my idea. If you frame the problem as illegal opium in Afghanistan, it looks like a choice between three strategies at village level :

A. Eradicating the crop. Pros: none. Cons: ineffective, alienates villagers.

B. Substituting other crops like apples and pomegranates. Pros: genuine long-term solution. Cons: hard to set up and sustain, expensive initially.

C. Legalising opium production. Pros: genuine long-term solution; potentially benefits African cancer sufferers; longer-term income guarantee; partially pre-funded by postulated cancer scheme. Cons: hard to set up (=B); risk of diversion; no cancer scheme in place for Africans etc.

In this analysis, the legalisation is a bad bet absent the currently nonexistent scheme for the Africans, and at best no better than substitution.

But if like me you frame the problem as pain relief for the world’s poor, there are two strategies:

X. Buying lots more legal opium from existing suppliers (India, Australia, Turkey). Pros: sure thing using existing legal and farming infrastructure, no additional risks. Cons: none really.

Y. Buying lots more legal opium from Afghanistan. Pros: helps win war in Afghanistan. Cons: much harder to set up (but the alternative in Afghanistan is plan B, so you already have a policy and village-level infrastructure).

In this perspective, the Afghan option offers the potential of a double payoff and is worth at least trying an actual experiment, as Bacon would have suggested.

But let’s be clear: the failure to provide morphine to millions of poor sufferers is a terrible scandal; it’s easily and cheaply fixed as evils on that scale go; and if the morphine can’t be sourced from Afghanistan, then Australia will do just fine.


Angels on horseback

Afghan opium: (repeats wearily), buy the stuff.

[Update September 29th: I retract here some of the language used below.]

I was planning a post on palliative care: drawing on a few actual arguments and facts and my personal experience of watching my wife die. Plainly this exercise has no point at all just now; any more than a reasoned analysis of the economic position of the Jewish bourgeoisie would have had in 1933 Germany. You can’t fight lies with nuance.

So instead I’ll glumly mount my tired Rosinante again on the subject of Afghan opium. Mark is right that it’s progress of a sort that the USA and UK plan to give money to Afghan farmers to grow nothing or apples instead. But it’s still second-best.

If the cash is handed over for growing nothing, the scheme is humiliating, short-term, and basically a boondoggle like the European Union‘s farm “set-asides”. Even by the low standards of the Common Agricultural Policy, these are so smelly that they are being phased out. (The new scheme is simply to give needy farmers including the Duke of Westminster large sacks of money in return for just existing; even Louis XIV or Prince Metternich didn’t try that one.) If the money is handed over for growing something else, it will be an uphill struggle against comparative advantage. If apple trees grew well, wouldn’t they be there already?

Either way, the plan will be wide open to abuse — including growing opium anyway. It might work if Afghan farmers were either much less intelligent or much more public-spirited than European or American ones. It’s a safe bet that the truth is the reverse. The extreme selective pressures operating in the Afghan countryside since the Soviet invasion of 1978 guarantee that the surviving Afghan peasants are bound to be both cleverer and even less scrupulous than the Duke of Westminster and his American farm-baron cousins.

The first-choice plan is still to buy the opium crop for medical use as morphine in poor countries that hardly use any of the stuff today, except for their élites.


§ UK and American taxpayers would be buying, instead of nothing, a valuable supply of the world’s great painkiller of last resort.

§ People with terminal cancer or AIDS in Africa would get, instead of agony, the chance of dying in peace and dignity.

§ The Afghan peasants would get the same money — but in a scheme that they would know to be useful, moral and sustainable.

§ The Taliban would gnash their teeth.


§ Requires an expansive reading of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Nothing in the Convention appears to prevent the USA and UK from doubling their national estimates of annual opiate needs under Article 19 from 120 tons or so to 240 tons, earmarking the increase for a Third World outreach programme. The problem at first sight is Article 24 which requires the approval of an international board for the corresponding increase in legal Afghan exports. Still, there’s a war on; the USA could surely get its way in Vienna by threatening to denounce the Convention.

§ Requires a long-term commitment, in funds and organization, to a huge expansion of safe medical morphine delivery in the Third World. To anybody with a heart, this is a plus. The issue of different timescales can be resolved by temporary stockpiles.

§ Faces severe difficulties in setting up a tolerably secure legal production chain in Afghanistan. But these are less than those of the half-baked set-aside scheme actually being planned. Zero leakage is not atttainable in either, but isn’t required.

So what’s the snag? Why has this pretty obvious idea been not only rejected (fair enough, you can’t win them all) but simply cut out of the discussion? Don’t the US and its allies face a desperate crisis in Afghanistan when anything plausible should be considered?

Continue reading “Angels on horseback”

Careful what you wish for

Crop substitution may or may not be a better way of shrinking the poppy crop than crop eradication; they’re likely to be about equally unsuccessful. But in this case, failure is feature, not a bug: smaller crops mean higher prices and higher total illicit revenues.

Instead of threatening Afghan farmers who grow poppies with having their crops eradicated, the new US/UK plan is to offer them money in various forms in return for not growing poppies. If that worked, it would produce the desired result – a smaller total poppy crop – by helping farmers rather than damaging them. That sounds like an improvement.

But my colleague Jon Caulkins points out that the desired result isn’t, in fact, desirable. A smaller poppy crop means higher opium prices, which won’t much inconvenience heroin refiners, since the price of opium is a small part of the price of heroin. Refiners’ demand for opium is relatively inelastic: the price goes up, in percentage terms, much more than the quantity purchased goes down. So a smaller crop means more total dollars in illicit transactions. And it’s the dollars, not the kilos, that contribute to the security problem in Afghanistan.

The best outcome would be to make farmers better off – for example, by “just handing them cash,” as a “senior U.S. military official” dismissively put it to Karen DeParle – without accomplishing the purported goal of the program in the form of a smaller poppy crop.

Yes, it’s important to have metrics of success. It’s more important to choose the right metrics.

Solving the poverty problem in Afghanistan by handing out money

For less than 10% of the military budget for Afghanistan, we could eliminate rural poverty there.

Afghanistan has never been rich. After thirty years of invasion, war, and religious totalitarianism, it is now one of the poorest countries in the world. The insurgency and various kinds of organized thuggery and warlordism (and some counter-insurgency actions) help keep the place poor; poverty (and counter-insurgency actions, plus poppy crop eradication) encourage people to join the insurgency or various bandit/warlord outfits.

US expenditure budget for Afghanistan this year is to be $65 billion; I’m not sure how much NATO and other countries add to that. The US budget alone is more than 5 times the Afghan GDP of $12.5B ($400 per capita).

Solving the security problem is hard, especially given the very limited capacity and very dubious integrity of the Afghan security forces. But solving the poverty problem might be easier.

Consider the following program:

1. Partition the map of Afghanistan into areas of roughly 500 residents (50-150 households). Given that the Afghan population is 32 million, some of it urban, and that there are said to be 40,000 villages, that must be roughly the size of the typical village.

2. Designate an individual or local council in each village (or urban equivalent) as a point of contact. With a population of 32 million, that would be potentially 64,000 points of contact. If 3/4 of the population lives in areas not controlled by warlords or the Taliban, that means something like 50,000 actual points of contact. You can more or less tell which areas are secure by whether some individual or group wants to stand up as the recipient of the money.

3. Deliver (in cash in the countryside, by direct deposit in the cities) $20 per capita (roughly $10,000 per area) to each point of contact. Nominally, that would be for for some mix of local public goods and public services and redistribution to the household level. Actually, much of it would be misappropriated; how finicky to be about that is a design question, and whether it’s possible to get feedback from residents (e.g., by cell phone) to put a limit on the level of peculation is a social-networking question.

Assume that 3/4 of Afghanistan is “secure” enough so that someone could be designated as a point of contact without getting killed. 24 million people at $20 per month is roughly $500 million per month, or $6 billion per year. Chickenfeed.

Operationally, that means making 48,000 cash deliveries per month. Say you’d want to have 4-soldier teams to make the deliveries, and that a team could make 2 deliveries per day, 24 days per month. That’s 1000 teams, or 4,000 soldiers. Doesn’t sound operationally infeasible.

Suddenly every “secure” area is, in rural Afghan terms, reasonably prosperous. (Kabul is a much more expensive place to live.) In a country with a GDP per capita of $400 and a hugely unequal income distribution, $240 per person per year, which is what you’d be handing out, is probably greater than the medium household income.

And now every Afghan &#8212 and especially the 50,000 or so influentials handing out the cash and the additional 15,000 who would be doing so if their areas were designated as “secure” &#8212 has one strong reason to want the Taliban to go away.

On the one hand, this sounds like a crazy think-tank scenario. On the other, I can’t see any obviouls reason why it couldn’t work, and the downside seems reasonably modest.

This graphic kills people

Providing Afghanistan and other developing countries with money to pay the police enough to keep them honest doesn’t count as “development assistance.”

In Afghanistan, violent crime and extortion (e.g., in the form of official shakedowns and roadblocks set up by various categories of land pirates) are among the central problems faced by farmers and others trying to earn a living. Those problems, in turn, are greatly worsened by the low pay and consequent low morale of the police forces, the army, and such related services as border guards.

That raises an obvious question: Why don’t all the countries interested in building a stable and relatively prosperous Afghanistan help the government out by subsidizing the pay of the police and the army? The same question applies, though not always with equal force, through much of the developing world. It would seem that a moderately honest police force ought to deserve a very high priority on the list of development tasks, and even moderate honesty is not consistent with salaries too low to support a family. The Washington Consensus put great emphasis on “getting prices right,” but little emphasis on getting civil service salaries right.

With respect to the police and the army (though not, for example, tax collection agencies) it turns out that there is at least a partial answer to that question.

The Development Assistance Committee (DAC) of the OECD compiles statistics on “Official Development Assistance” as a percentage of a donor nation’s GDP, against a UN target of 0.7%. That produces the familiar graphic below:


The DAC defines ODA as:

Flows of official financing administered with the promotion of the economic development and welfare of developing countries as the main objective, and which are concessional in character with a grant element of at least 25 percent (using a fixed 10 percent rate of discount). By convention, ODA flows comprise contributions of donor government agencies, at all levels, to developing countries (“bilateral ODA”) and to multilateral institutions. ODA receipts comprise disbursements by bilateral donors and multilateral institutions.

This definition is intended to distinguish “development assistance” from “security assistance,” preventing donors, especially the U.S. but also Russia and China, from getting “development assistance” credit for buying friendly generals expensive toys. Fighter planes don’t build societies.

But the police count as “security forces,” so aid to the police is “security assistance,” and therefore not, as it is said, “DAC-able.” So giving money for worthless prestige projects counts, and giving money for essential public safety doesn’t count.

Which proves, yet again, that what seem like mundane decisions about data collection and analyiss can have important real-world impacts.

Given that the police and the army can be tools of oppression as well as guarantors of civil peace, it’s not hard to understand the prejudice of the development community against anything with a “security” element to it. (Back when I was at the Kennedy School, I discovered that the charter of the Harvard Institute on International Development forbade any engagement in crime-control projects.) But economic development demands a modicum of honest law enforcement. Time to reconsider the rules?