Sunday, July 31, 2011

Children of the Drug War

Among the most moving issues is that of the unseen impacts on children of: poverty, drought, terrorism and counterterrorism, economic sanctions - and the global war on drugs.

The calculus that keeps much of the 'first world' engaged in 'third world' events tends to ignore the human costs, focusing instead on fiscal budgets. In effort to go beyond the status quo thinking, Joe Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimate the true cost of the Iraq war as $3 trillion, including such things as the healthcare bills of injured war veterans. But these studies are few and far between.

This is where Children of the Drug War steps in. The book is now fully published, but we're still waiting for it to go up on websites.

My coauthor and I contributed a look into 'opium brides' in Afghanistan. These are children, largely girls, who get bartered to service farmers' debt to drug lords. Looking at the huge potential income gains from growing poppy over the nearest competitor wheat (more than 6-fold as lucrative), many farmers borrow the finances needed to get started. But as drought or field eradication policies take hold, their poppies are destroyed. This usually leaves poppy farmers in debt still owed to drug lords for the start-up capital. As means to repayment, a practice that occurs is offering the debtor a child-bride.

A popular essay in Newsweek some years back highlighted the issue and developed the term 'opium bride'. The scale and entrenchment of the problem is largely unknown as the war on terror takes place on the same grounds as the war on drugs: Helmand and Kandahar are the dubious sites of the both interventions into Afghanistan. This means that research and reporting from these areas is significantly limited.

What my coauthor Atal discovered in conducting interviews in and around Kandahar is that it's likely more pronounced than we think. Many of the people he was able to meet had specific details to share; all had heard of the practice.

The challenge is a difficult one, rooted in the nature of the economy -- we could call it a 'drug' economy as much of the literature does, but this ignores the fact that is just plain 'economy' to the people engaged in it; the scale of opium income has been as high as 3 times the "legal GDP" in Afghanistan. But it is also rooted in shifts of cultural practices, perceptions and power in Afghanistan in the last generation - and in the last 10 years of the renewed war.

The Afghan-Soviet war displaced traditional elites such as mullahs and tribal heads, leaving the local political space to be filled-in by mujahedeen veterans and those who could wield violence to sort out territory. Alongside the impacts on children and youth, these largely ignored shifts in power need to be further understood in Afghanistan as a result of the foreign interventions. This is one of the insights we try to offer in the book in the latest 10 year war period.

Children of the Drug War takes a broad look at many countries, an innovative book that digs deep under common debates on drugs and wars.

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