Another policy success

This morning a report landed in my email inbox from the American Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) entitled Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan.

SIGAR audits the development assistance provided by the United States to Afghanistan. His reports make depressing reading, being mostly a catalogue of billions of dollars of misspent resources producing few if any positive results.

The latest report is no exception. Its conclusion: ‘After a decade of reconstruction and over $7 billion in counternarcotics efforts, poppy cultivation levels are at an all-time high.’ ‘Afghan farmers grew an unprecedented 209,000 hectares of opium poppy in 2013’, says the report, ‘With deteriorating security in many  parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivations are likely in 2014.’



Attempting to prevent people from consuming illicit drugs by destroying the supply is a strategy that has not had notable success anywhere else. Yet, as with so many other failed policies America and its NATO alllies insanely persist in doing the same thing over and over again in the hope of getting a different result. How can this be explained?

Psychology provides a clue in the form of the ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’: people attribute others’ mistakes to something internal to them (e.g. their malice or incompetence), but their own mistakes to some external factor beyond their control. So it is that in this case, the US Department of State and the Department of Defense, in their responses to SIGAR (included in the report) lay the blame for the bad poppy cultivation figures on the Afghan government.  ‘Our counternarcotics goals can only be accomplished when these are also Afghan counternarcotics goals’, says the Department of State. ‘In our opinion, the failure to reduce poppy cultivation and increase eradication is due to the lack of Afghan government support for the effort’, says the Department of Defense.

This, of course, is an entirely self-serving explanation, as it excuses the Americans for their own failures. It thereby allows them to persist in the belief that counter-narcotics strategies are not inherently futile, and to continue to pour resources into them in the hope that next time things will work out right.

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