Why the Defense and State Department’s Recent Decision to Turn a Blind Eye Toward Opium Production is a Bad Move.
Last month after members of the Associated Press asked Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. Special envoy to Afghanistan, about his thoughts regarding the Bush-era policies of destroying opium fields, he responded bluntly, “Eradication is a waste of money.” It is hard to find a more courageously candid diplomat than our current man in Afghanistan, and although I agree with Holbrooke’s eye-opening assessment, I believe we can do better than his current policy of ignoring the opium problem and channeling all of our energy toward fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. Instead of simply looking the other way, the U.S. should pursue a bold counter-drug strategy directly; one which would isolate the insurgency and reap a whirlwind of additional benefit back here at home.
Under the Bush-era regime, the U.S. Defense Department spent an estimated $45 million dollars annually destroying the Afghan opium crop. That strategy proved largely ineffective at reducing the overall revenue the Taliban garnered from converting the raw opium paste into fine powdered heroin, whereupon they sold the refined product to other criminal organizations who then moved it through central Asia and onto destinations in Russia, Europe and the Americas. In fact, according to the 2009 World Drug Report, issued by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, Afghan opium production has actually increased by approximately one thousand metric tons each year since the U.S. invasion in 2001, from roughly 3,000 MT in 2002 to almost 8,000 MT last year.
Further compounding the problem of our futile effort to stanch the flow of the illegal drug, the process of destroying the opium fields has driven a wedge between the local Afghan population and their own nascent government because much of the land belongs to impoverished farmers who earn four times as much money cultivating opium than wheat. The resulting distrust and dislike that the Afghans feel towards their elected officials reduces the ability of those leaders to govern effectively after we eventually pull our troops out of the country. In addition to upsetting the farmers, the crop eradication program also alienated many other small businesses such as truck drivers, and merchants who rely on the subsidiary industry which supports the opium trade. Ironically, during the early days of the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, the U.S. military courted many of those same people as our potential allies; people who knew the terrain well and helped us to identify key enemy targets. Unfortunately, during the crop-eradication program of the last administration we turned our back on those people in our zeal to destroy their opium crop. That shortsighted policy only served to fuel more anti-American sentiment throughout the four main opium producing provinces of Southeast Afghanistan —the same contested areas where the majority of U.S. and NATO personnel have been killed.
Today, the U.S. has a rare opportunity to reverse all of those previous blunders and simultaneously drive a stake through the heart of the heroin trade; a pernicious and destructive social force which has devastated our inner cities and proven impossible to eliminate. According to the UNODC, Afghanistan is the world’s leading source if opium, cultivating 93 percent of the world’s entire supply of the heroin producing crop. It is hard to imagine a commodity that has fewer sources, even rare minerals such as gold or diamonds can be found in various regions throughout the world. The limited area of production of opium should make it easy for the U.S. to corner the market in opium. Yes, that’s right; I’m suggesting that the United States get into the business of buying drugs. As radical as that sounds initially, there are actually some very sound reasons for this audacious plan. 1) The cost of buying the opium at its source (and subsequently destroying it in situ) is still much less expensive than attempting to interdict it coming into the U.S. once it has left Afghanistan. We could purchase the entire 2009 Opium crop, predicted to be over 8,000 MT, for about $90 million dollars, or roughly less than one third the cost of an F-22 fighter aircraft. 2) Once we recover the 2009 crop, we could then convert portions of the raw opium into pharmaceutical grade pain killers, which are often some of the most expensive medicines available, and distribute those products free of costs to patients at U.S. hospitals. 3) By purchasing the entire 2009 opium crop the U.S. would therefore deprive the Taliban of their main source of revenue, an estimated $50- $70 million dollars annually. That is money that would not be available for them to finance the killing of our warfighters in Afghanistan, or used to fund other acts of terrorism around the world. 4) The opium straw, all portions of the plant except the poppy, could also be converted into bio-fuel diesel, potentially creating other jobs and further reducing the cost of our military operations throughout the region. 5) Despite the tremendous benefits of all of these ideas, perhaps the best reason to pursue this course of action is because it would reduce the amount of U.S. citizens addicted to one of the most dangerous narcotics known to man.
The road ahead for American foreign policy in Afghanistan is not an easy one; it is fraught with unforeseen perils and other hidden expenses. As long as we retain a fighting force in that country the U.S. is certain to lose more blood and treasure in the process of establishing a better government for the people of Afghanistan. Now is the time to minimize those loses by implementing a grand strategy to reduce opium, isolate our enemy, and bring some of the benefits of our noble sacrifices back home.
The author, Joel Z. Williams writes frequently about topics related to counter-insurgency and warfare. Mr. Williams is a 2006 graduate of Missouri State University and currently works for the Springfield-Greene County Library District.