Should We Kill All Poppies?

by Joshua Foust on 10/6/2008 · 4 comments

The Columbia Journalism Review kindly ran another essay of mine, this time looking at the latest hype over poppies.

The very simple fact underscoring the difficulties of curtailing opium cultivation in Afghanistan is that, put simply, opium is the local economy in many areas of the country. Because USAID can’t provide direct cereal crop assistance to other countries, it also can’t give farmers realistic alternatives to growing poppies. The money is simply too attractive. Similarly, almost no other crop, including cereal crops or fruits or other cash crops, has an industry willing to front the capital necessary for large-scale cultivation—making poppy one of the only financial options for cash-strapped farmers.

As always, comments are welcome.

Update: Please, keep comments about my employment out of the boards. Where I work is immaterial to what I write here, since they have never approved nor endorsed nor reviewed a single word I write in my free time in any way, shape or form. Keep ’em on topic, please.

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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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JTapp October 6, 2008 at 1:57 pm

My answer is “no.”
I read a good paper a few years ago laying out a plan to regulate the poppy trade and allow opium to be bought from Afghanistan. It’d be beneficial to the Afghans and to the world as opiates are still used in drugs like Tylenol with codeine, hydrocodone, and other pain killers. It would bring down the prices of those drugs and provide a legitimate market for Afghan farmers to sell to. Everyone wins.

Joshua Foust October 6, 2008 at 6:33 pm

I think buying CAN be a good idea, depending on how it’s done. There would be a real danger is just buying it all and dumping it on the legal opiate market—Afghanistan produces a huge amount of the stuff, and it would cause a global price crash. I’m a bigger fan of buying large scale opium crops for biodiesel or ethanol production—it’s far more efficient than either wheat or corn.

Positroll October 8, 2008 at 6:27 am

I am no expert, but … as far as I can see, the problem with tackling opium in Afghanistan is that it has been treated too much from a policing and development perspective. However, opium is the major source of money for the Taliban. It’s a center of gravity. And unlike their presence in Pakistan, we can attack it directly. Fighting it should therefore be considered THE major strategic goal. That does not necessarily mean you have to fight it (only) with military means.

How about this idea:

– Let Nato buy up all poppies in the south (especially Helmand) for 2 years and destroy them (or, if possible, divert to biofuel).
– Offer the farmers 5-10 times (!) the amount they usually get from the dealers during those 2 years; let them swear to an Aghan mullah that they will not grow poppies after those two years
– shortly before harvest time, put checkpoints on the roads to areas where you think opium has already been eradicated more or less; and let it been known from the beginning that you will do that => this way, farmers in those areas won’t be tempted too much to start growing opium again.
– Tell everybody that after those 2 years, you will destroy every opium (and cannabis) plant you can find – and make sure you follow through on the threat by concentrating lots of troops there before harvest in the 3rd year (designate sectors of the Helmand green belt to the Afghan army and police. follow up with international troops helped by satellite pictures. promise the Afghan troops (lots of) money depending on the amount of poppy the Internationals are still able to find after the Afghans went through).
– offer rewards for people turning in opium growers after the first two years
– Promise the farmers a guarantied price for some other crops for the 2 following years.

Yes, this will be expensive. But less so than military action, considering that the opium farmers normally don’t make too much profit.

And it would
– allow the farmers to invest in new crops of their choice
– it would immediately reduce the influence of the drug gangs and thereby reduce corruption
– eliminate the argument “we can’t destroy the poppies because this will alienate the population”
– break the financial back of the Taliban in the long run

Once the farmer has already invested in – lets say wheat – for years no. 3 + 4, he will be unlikely to return to poppy in year 5, as he knows the (then hopefully better trained and paid) police will be after him and there won’t be to many other opium growers for the same reason; so he would stand out and get ratted out …

Positroll October 8, 2008 at 6:37 am

The timeline:
If you buy up all the poppy in Helmand in 2009 and 2010,
the US could “surge” their troops in 2011 in order to go after the remaining poppies. This would coincide with reducing the US troops in Iraq in 2009+2010, freeing about 50.000 troops for an april-ocotber 2011 campain in Southern Afghanistan, destroing poppies, opium and arms cages where they find them.
Use the troops to train more Afghans in the following 6 months.
Make sure people in Afghanistan know this, too. The more troops you send in in 2011, the less effort will be needed afterwards …

Just to be clear: any opium found in 2008 + 09 should of course be destroyed. Only the poppies as such would be tolerated during those 2 years.

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