Can Afghanistan Be Saved? Not With The Current Opium Policy.

by Joshua Foust on 9/18/2006 · 13 comments

Amid news that the Taliban have learned from their Iraqi compatriots, and officially aligned themselves with al-Qaeda, is the steadily decreasing morale of the Afghani people themselves. It’s quite a bind—the Taliban are more brutal than before (I wasn’t aware such a thing was possible), while at the same time Karzai’s government, and his western backers, are proving less reliable than ever.

Here’s one solution: buy Afghanistan’s opium.

This chart, taken from the Monitor’s website, shows Afghani opium production over the past decade. It had grown significantly under the Taliban, as it was one of the only ways they had of funding their government. The initial drop, just before 2000, came as the Taliban chose to crack down on farmers in the face of universal outcry. The major drop is in 2001, when the NATO/Northern Alliance coalition toppled the Taliban. 2005 should be the most depressing data point—that year, Kabul managed to spray about 1/5 of the total hectarage used to grow opium, yet the drop was minor. Making matters worse are suspicions that up to 1/4 of the loya jirga, the parliament, is in the hands of the drug lords—easy enough to do, as the price per kilo of opium rose from about $60 in 2003 to around $300 at the beginning of 2006.

The challenge with opium is that it is so profitable. I don’t even know where to begin calculating how many hectares of, say, wheat, or apricots one farmer would have to grow and sell to replace the income from a single hectare of opium. Poppy accounted for over 40% of Afghanistan’s GDP in 2004, and that was with all the foreign aid factored in. In terms of what Afghanistan actually produces in its domestic economy, there is little else.

This poses big problems for Kabul at the present time, as it cannot collect taxes on illicit trade, turning the 40+% of the country that grows it into dead weight on the economy. Since the government is starved for cash, and can barely contain things in the few cities it does control, the places outside of its reach—Kabul—have been basically thrown to the wolves (update: almost twenty people have been “>killed in suicide attacks across the country, including in Kabul).

Posing even an bigger problem is the current modus operandi—interdiction and eradication. Both techniques were borrowed from the drug wars in Colombia, and both have proven to be just as ineffective. Alternatives are slim: given the involvement of the Taliban in the drug trade, offering amnesty to drug runners is not much of an option, nor is developing alternative crops—there is simply too much money to be had.

Therefore, let’s just buy the stuff. Big pharmaceutical companies cultivate opium for various forms of sedative, such as morphine and codeine (and many, many others). In Turkey and India, the decision to transform illegal opium fields into legal venues for producing opiate drugs was highly successful, and the drug trade was severely curtailed through legitimation. Though the scale is different, there is no reason the same principle cannot apply to Afghanistan: by turning poppy into a legitimate crop, with legitimate (and therefore non-violent) means of export and sale, the big lure the militants had—handfuls of cash—will disappear virtually overnight. It is a fairly safe bet that Afghani farmers would rather sell to rich drug companies than violent extremists, and the opium trade in general would be nicely curtailed by the accompanying drop in price.

Unfortunately, instead of learning from the success stories in India and Turkey, places where partial legitimation virtually collapsed the drug economy, the governing coalition instead seems to be taking its cues instead from Colombia, which has been a nasty mess for decades. Whole sections of the country are in the hands of FARC, which has become a de facto government effectively preventing the legitimate rulers from ever achieving stability. The same thing has happened in Helmand, and is starting to happen even in Iran-controlled provinces in the west. This is not a good thing, and the government would do well to look at alternative solutions to the standard American response. Opening Afghani opium to Big Pharma is one possible way out, and even if it isn’t perfect, it’s a damned sight better than what’s happening now.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Nick September 18, 2006 at 9:04 am

For what it’s worth, here’s a paper from the thinktank Senlis proposing much the same thing.

Joshua Foust September 18, 2006 at 10:08 am

Thanks Nick. I hadn’t read that specific report, but it matches closely with other sources I’ve read that have advocated buying Afghanistan’s poppy, rather than trying to destroy it.

Nick September 18, 2006 at 11:24 am

I think there’s much to be said for taking an asymmetric view and applying a commercial, not military-political, solution to the problem of opium production. After all, as William Burroughs himself pointed out, illegal opium derivates are amongst the most profitable and marketable products of the consumer age: they’re unregulated, untaxed, always in demand, don’t require advertising or packaging, and rely purely on word of mouth.

Eric September 18, 2006 at 11:52 am

Yeah, that’s not altogether a terrible idea and it’s been bantered about the intel community. The problem is that the licit market in pharmaceutical grade opiates is just not big enough to eat up the volume of the illicit trade. The next idea is to buy it and then destroy it. Start loading a few C-130s and kick the stuff out the back over the Indian Ocean. Either way, buying up all of the raw opium will place demand pressures on the market and drive the price up. The impact would be to encourage farmers to get into opium production.

The only really answer is to provide farmers with an alternative. Its true, crop substitution has never really worked, but that’s largely because it’s been run as a development program and not a national security program. In development-based programs farm-gate prices are based on what the market will bear. Its bad development doctrine to get underdeveloped countries hooked on subsidies from the donor community. Farm projects need to be self-sustaining. Problem is, there is no crop that can compete with opium in terms of farm-gate price.

But we need a different agenda. The narcotics trade in Afghanistan is a symbiotic web that supports the warlords, the Taliban and al-Qaida. We have more to worry about than creating an agricultural economy on life support. Yes, we want to develop the economy of Afghanistan, but first we need to cripple the opium/heroin trade and develop the infrastructure for other agricultural industry. We have to set aside strict development protocols and either buy their products or subsidize production so that their products can be sold locally – all for more that the opium farm-gate price.

We could get them to grow wheat, buy it at the higher price, sell it on the open market and just eat the loses. We could get them to grow mulberries and subsidize the infrastructure needed to turn them into silk and again eat some of the loses associated (these are just examples). If possible, we should try to get people to produce things for which there are local markets. Or perhaps we get people into the business of growing things for more than just their market price. Pay people to replant trees – deforestation of Afghanistan is beyond endemic – and engage in other agricultural programs for which there is no buyer but which represent real long term investments

This is going to be expensive. But it’s not just an effective eradication program, but a part of long term counter-insurgency. Part of which is hunting down the bad guys but another is hearts and minds and getting people into the business of living.

The good news is that it could rip the legs out from under the warlords, making the long-term mission in Afghanistan a lot easier. It probably will make the traffickers and heroin-dependent warlords come after us…but that’s ok too. 🙂

Joshua Foust September 18, 2006 at 12:13 pm

Some good ideas I’ve read of include orchards, which would have local and export market potential. The problem, as you state, is that useful agricultural development—”teaching a man to fish” so to speak—is far more expensive, time consuming, and problematic than a short term program of eradication.

We run into friction, too, with the countries most able to affect positive change. They are shackled by the demands of electoral politics, and are usually unwilling to spend lots of money with little to no short term benefit. If something will not play well in the next election, but will be beneficial 10, 15, or 20 years down the line, it will not happen.

Think about the U.S. “Eradication drugs at their source” plays much better on the talk shows than “we are establishing a strong economic foundation to wean the country off drug production.”

Will Bullock September 18, 2006 at 12:20 pm

Focusing on crop substitution is a strong idea. Typically, farm gate prices for producers of illicit crops aren’t high. The pull for producers is usually a combination of access to the resources to put the crop in the ground (seed at the very least up to more intensive models of fertilizer, pesticides, machinerary, etc.) and a ready market willing to pay cash, at times in advance, and deal with the lack of infrastructure between production and the market.
Subsidizing the market to produce and squeeze out poppy’s as an option will reduce supply, and drive up costs for end users. That will have ramifications on demand. Since heroin addicts aren’t likely to say, “this is too expensive for me” the result may be increased crime.
The other ramification will be reduced supply for drug lords. They won’t be happy about this, and that will have ramifications.
The biggest challenge is understanding the economics of poppy production in the production areas. Farmers are getting a payment – X. They may be getting an advance, they may be getting equipment, they may be getting threatened. Who else is involved – from the purchasing agent, to the local strong man that gets a kick back to allow this to take place in his sphere of influence needs to be understood in order to design a project to address the issue.
I agree with Mr. Vickland that security forces need to be involved, because who ever is out there buying wheat from these producers will become a target for the drug industry.

Nick September 18, 2006 at 2:55 pm

There’s also another thing – could produce from Afghanistan break onto the international market? it’s a regular complaint among Central Asia wholesalers that, despite the obvious quality of their produce (visitors to Central Asaia will know better than me), they just can’t anyone to buy their stuff in really big quantities. There’s also the issue of seasonality …

Joshua Foust September 18, 2006 at 4:40 pm

I know that in Kazakhstan, the cucumbers and tomatoes were superb, even if they weren’t as big as what I get in the states. That’s probably because they weren’t engineered to be large. Anyway, I have no idea where they came from – I assume somewhere in the region – but you’re right, Nick, that the vegetables there are really tasty. While I was there, I learned the wonders of snacking on veggies instead of doritos.

But I’m not so sure Central Asian farmers face any kind of regional bias in terms of getting their products to market. The main reason Uzbek cotton is more available in the states is because of the local cotton lobby, not any kind of prejudice on the parts of American consumers—most people have no idea where their stuff comes from. I think a far bigger issue is transport: a low-profit commodity like produce has to have cheap transport, and there is simply no cheap way to transport something grown in the depths of Afghanistan to a port. It would cost almost as much getting it to, say, Karachi, as it would to ship from Karachi to Los Angeles.

Brian Ulrich September 19, 2006 at 12:46 am

Thanjk you! I’ve been saying this for ages. One problem is Australia’s opposition, however.

Nick September 19, 2006 at 1:59 am

Joshua, that’s kind of what I meant. It is still to an extent a legacy of the Soviet era that many Central Asian farmers just can’t break into the international markets (cotton aside) due to transport issues. I believe that also that in the case of cotton the majority of exports go via Russia – again, a legacy of the Soviet era.

Eric September 19, 2006 at 7:03 am

Obviously one of the issues is time it takes perishable products to get to market. Local economies might be better served by the development of products with some local value-added. Recently I heard Sarah Chayes (fmr NPR Correspondent) speak about her book, “The Punishment of Virtue.” She is now part of NGO that makes higher end natural bath products out of locally grown produce such as pomegranates. Pretty popular in the US, they can be produced easily in Afghanistan, they won’t rot in transport, and they are produced locally.

I’m not suggesting growing pomegranates all over the world but I think we need to look for models that help develop local products into exportable products. Sometimes that entails some transfer of know-how but often the processes are low-tech and sustainable.

Joshua Foust September 20, 2006 at 7:28 am

Here’s something I forgot all about: one of the biggest private employers in Afghanistan is They have an entire section of their website devoted to local artisan crafts, from Afghanistan and many other places. They do brisk business, too, and since 2002 prices have risen nicely. So there probably isn’t any kind of bias against products from the region, and it’s entirely likely that in Afghanistan’s case people would think “oh, we need to support those poor farmers.”

Then again, as we’ve stated above, moving rugs and bracelets is far easier than moving apples and pomegranates.

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