Jonathan Power: Undermining Afghanistan’s Opium Trade

Quite right: the Obama administration is gearing up to pressure the Europeans to put more boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Quite right: the Europeans don’t want to engage in a war of attrition—à la the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s or as the United States did in Vietnam a decade and a half before. There’s nothing worse than having to pull out with your tail between your legs and confront the electorate for the needless deaths of thousands of your brave and young.

The answer to this paradox is that the Europeans, using their nous as well as their military might, should confront the issue of the Afghanistan poppy crop—a crop that provides 90 percent of the heroin sold in Europe and is the source of funding for over 80 percent of Taliban activity.

This brings me to a memorable conversation I had in Islamabad with President/General Pervez Musharraf two years ago (published in Prospect magazine in March 2007). He suggested that the West should introduce a common agricultural policy for Afghan’s poppies. In other words, to do as both the EU and the United States do with some other agricultural crops: buy it up with government money.

“Buying the crop is an idea one could explore,” said Musharraf. “Pakistan doesn’t have the money for it. We would need help from the United States or the UN. But we could buy up the whole crop and destroy it. In that way the poor growers would not suffer.”

Purchasing the Afghan poppy crop was first suggested by the International Council on Security and Development. The controversial idea would solve two problems in one blow. First, it would prevent the often unwilling opium farmer from being driven into the arms of the Taliban—both for protection and as buyers and traffickers. Second, it could help the world (especially the poorer parts of Asia and Africa) with their chronic shortage of medical opiates. Millions die each week in excruciating pain without access to pharmaceuticals or anodynes. Death is bad enough, but to die in extreme agony is the most frightening thing a human being can face.

India, Australia, and Turkey—the latter encouraged by the Americans since 1974—are the only countries allowed to grow poppies under the supervisory authority of the World Health Organization. Western countries buy most of it.

Needless to say, there are the many practical problems that appear to confront this proposed program. If the price were set too high, it might encourage even more farmers to grow opium poppies. Besides, however high the price, some UN agricultural economists argue that the traffickers would simply outbid the government—safe in the knowledge that addicts across Europe would eventually foot the bill. And, if the price was not set high enough, farmers would go on selling at least some of the crop on the black market.

But this overlooks human nature, especially in an earnest Islamic nation where everyone knows—including the once fervently anti-drug Taliban—that narcotics are strongly condemned by tradition and the Koran. Only desperation has driven most farmers to opium. All things considered, one imagines, they would rather sell to a government agency at, say, today’s going price—especially if they knew that fruit of their labors was going to help people in pain.

Sartaj Aziz, the former agriculture and finance minister of Pakistan, wrote in to Prospect to say he liked the idea and that it should be tried out on an experimental basis in one of Afghanistan’s poppy areas. I posed this to Musharraf, whose response was: “Look, let’s analyze it, let’s cost it, and see if it’s practical.”

In an article written last week by Reuters columnist Bernd Debusmann, he mentions a forthcoming paper by Professor James Nathan, a former State Department official, who notes that the total cost of such a program might run as high as $2.5 billion annually. It may seem like a lot—but not when compared with the $200 billion that the United States has already spent on the war in Afghanistan. (This figure, mind you, doesn’t even count NATO’s contribution.)

Such a policy would be far more effective in undermining both the Taliban and Al Qaeda than any number of new troops sent in for combat. The program would undoubtedly require troops to help with the crop purchase—to make sure there are no illicit, unofficial diversions and to police the districts and sellers as in compliance.

President Barack Obama has called for new ideas to combat the world’s intractable problems. Well, here’s one.

Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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