Afghanistan may be one the poorest countries in the world, but by legalizing and licensing opium production it could conceivably become the Saudi Arabia of morphine.
It is a measure of just how great a failure the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan has been that, after six consecutive years of record growth in poppy production, including a staggering 20 percent increase last year alone, American and U.N. officials are actually patting themselves on the back over a 6 percent decline in 2008. “We are finally seeing the results of years of effort,” said Antonio Maria Costa, who heads the United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crime.
Only the Taliban has ever managed to significantly reduce opium production in the country a feat managed by executing anyone caught growing poppies.
Yet this meager decline has almost nothing to do with international eradication efforts and everything to do with the law of supply and demand. As The New York Times reported in November, the Taliban have begun forcibly curbing poppy production and stockpiling opium in order to boost prices, which had fallen sharply due to a glut in the market. Indeed, Afghanistan has produced so much opium—between 90 to 95 percent of the world’s supply—that prices have dropped nearly 20 percent.
The truth is that the poppy eradication effort in Afghanistan, which consists mostly of hacking away at poppy fields with sticks and sickles, or spraying them from above with deadly herbicides, has been nothing short of a disaster. All this policy has managed to achieve (excluding that vaunted 6 percent decrease) is to alienate the Afghan people, fuel support for the Taliban, and further weaken the government of president Hamid Karzai, whose own brother has been linked to the illegal opium trade. Meanwhile, poppy cultivation is now such an entrenched part of Afghanistan's economy that in some parts of the country, opium is considered legal tender, replacing cash in day-to-day transactions.
In spite of all this, the U.S. State Department is planning to expand its crop eradication campaign. Last year, President Bush tapped the former ambassador to Columbia, William Wood, to become U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan. Wood, whose nickname in Columbia was “Chemical Bill,” because of his enthusiasm for aerial fumigation, has been charged with implementing in Afghanistan the same crop eradication program that—despite five billion dollars and hundreds of tons of chemicals—has had little effect on Colombia's coca production.
It is time to admit that the struggle to end poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is a losing battle. The fact is that opium has long been Afghanistan’s sole successful export. Poppy seeds cost little to buy, can grow pretty much anywhere, and offer a huge return on a farmer’s investment. Only the Taliban has ever managed to significantly reduce opium production in the country (as it did during its late-1990s rule)—a feat managed by executing anyone caught growing poppies. It is no exaggeration to say that we have a better chance of defeating the Taliban than putting a dent in Afghanistan’s opium trade. So then, as the saying goes: if you can’t beat them, join them.
The International Council on Security and Development (ICOS), a policy think-tank with offices in London and Kabul, has proposed abandoning the futile eradication efforts in Afghanistan and instead licensing farmers to legally grow poppies for the production of medical morphine. This so-called “Poppy for Medicine” program is not as crazy as it may sound. Similar programs have already proven successful in Turkey and India, both of which were able to bring the illegal production of opium in their countries under control by licensing, regulating, and taxing poppy cultivation. And there is every reason to believe that the program could work even in a fractured country like Afghanistan. This is because the entire production process—from poppies to pills—would occur inside the village under strict control of village authorities, which, in Afghanistan, often trump the authority of the federal government. Licensed farmers would legally plant and cultivate poppy seeds. Factories built in the villages would transform the poppies into morphine tablets. The tablets would then be shipped off to Kabul, where they would be exported to the rest of the world. These rural village communities would experience significant economic development, and tax revenues would stream into Kabul. (The Taliban, which taxes poppy cultivation under their control at 10 percent, made $300 million dollars last year.)
The global demand for poppy-based medicine is as great as it is for oil. According to the International Narcotics Control Board, 80 percent of the world’s population currently faces a shortage of morphine; morphine prices have skyrocketed as a result. The ICOS estimates that Afghanistan could supply this market with all the morphine it needs, and at a price at least 55 percent lower than the current market average.
Thus far, the Bush Administration has balked at this idea, despite a warm reception from the Afghan government and some NATO allies. There is a fear in Washington that such a proposal would contradict America’s avowed “war on drugs.” But the opium crisis in Afghanistan is not a drug enforcement problem, it is a national security issue: Licensing and regulating poppy cultivation would not only create stability and economic development, it could sap support for the Taliban and help win the war in Afghanistan.
So which will it be? The War on Drugs? Or the War on Terror? When it comes to Afghanistan, we can only choose one.
Reza Aslan is a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, Middle East analyst for CBS News, and a featured blogger for Anderson Cooper 360. He wrote the New York Times bestseller No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam. Aslan is co-founder and creative director of BoomGen Studios as well as the editorial executive of Mecca.com.