- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009


At the start of the Afghan war, the British government implored the Bush administration to bomb Afghanistan’s heroin labs and opium storehouses. The United States refused. America’s Afghan partners in the struggle against the Taliban were involved in the drug trade. They were crooked, but useful.

In 2004, Afghan President Hamid Karzai declared a “jihad on the cultivation of drugs.” Europeans guffawed. European intelligence had already named both the head of the Afghan Central Bank and Mr. Karzai’s “anti-corruption czar” as “drug lords.” And Mr. Karzai’s youngest brother, Ahmed Wali, was named as a trafficker in early 2005 in U.S. intelligence documents discovered by CBS’ “60 Minutes.” In fact, there has never been a “drug lord” arrested in post September 11th Afghanistan. Drug Enforcement Administration agents in 2005 found more than nine tons of opium in the office of Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, the governor of Helmand Province. Under British pressure, Mr. Akhundzada was removed, but the next year, Mr. Karzai found a place for him in the Afghan Senate.

In April 2006, John Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, enthused to reporters that “enormous progress” had been made in eradication of opium crops in Afghanistan. But by the end of 2007, U.S. officials estimated that Afghanistan had monopolized the world’s supply of opium and heroin, with 93 percent of world supply.

“Eradication” was America’s answer to the explosion of Afghanistan opium. The policy of paying day workers to attack poppy fields of farmers, with everything from sticks and weed whackers to tractors, backfired. “Hearts and minds” were lost. Eradication was billed to American taxpayers by contractors at up to $90,000 an acre - for a crop with a “commercial” value averaging less than $2,000, per farmer.

In sum, America’s effort at Afghan drug control, seemed, in the words of one expert, Peter Bergen, “bananas.” Few serious alternates to eradication were advanced except by a London based non-governmental organization, Senlis, which has suggested small-scale pilot programs of licensing villages for production of medically useful opiates. The Senlis approach has the backing of the European Parliament and many in the Canadian and British governments. But a reading of Senlis’ proposals reveals an amazingly complicated scheme that would hardly impact the Taliban and drug lords in any meaningful way for years.

The State Department dismissed Senlis’ work out of hand, noting “Afghanistan would be obligated to purchase opium stocks, resulting in the crops’ exponential expansion.” A proposal, much like a 2002 suggestion by the British intelligence (MI6) to buy Afghanistan’s entire opium crop, was considered by the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs at the start of 2008. The State Department’s conclusion was that it would be “incredibly costly” - some “one billion dollars” - to buy all the opium on the Afghan market.

Placed beside the $200 billion Afghanistan has already exacted from American taxpayers, the cost of purchasing all Afghanistan opium hardly seems outsized. Currently, opium gum fetches about $50 a pound. The largest crop in Afghanistan’s history was 8,200 tons, in 2007. A year’s worth of Afghan crop at twice the going rate would go for $2 billion to $2.5 billion. But even if the cost were $5 billion, the price would not seem untoward, especially given the paucity of alternative; and given the fact that opium, corruption, and the rise of the Taliban are single pieces of the same sorry cloth.

Ambassador Thomas Schweich, the State Department’s top counter-narcotic officer, argues a crop purchase program is not feasible “because no other crop [comes] even close to the value of poppies, [and] we needed the threat of eradication to force farmers to accept less-lucrative alternatives.” But Mr. Schweich’s point is belied by the years of research. The world’s most respected investigator on the matter of Afghan opium farming, David Mansfield, issued a report for the British government detailing his two decades of stunningly thorough surveys. Mr. Mansfield found that poppies, in marked contrast to the attitude of farmers in Turkey and India where the crop can legally be grown for medicinal purposes, repulse overwhelming majorities of Afghan farmers. Inevitably, Afghan crop choices are complex market decisions - a function, Mr. Mansfield writes, of price, credit, the availability of water, and the chance of getting a crop to market.

What if the United States purchased all the Afghan opium crops? And what if wheat, fruits, vegetables, and all other kinds of crops grown in Afghanistan were actually supported with fertilizers, markets, credit, irrigation, and technical support at every level, at the same time? The expense would be considerable. It would be cheaper, however, than a “multigenerational war” the Bush administration has long assured Americans was in the offing.

Purchasing the whole opium crop of Afghanistan, at whatever price, would take the crop away from the traffickers without cutting more than half the economy out of Afghanistan. If opium crops were pre-emptively purchased, the traffickers and Afghanistan’s most corrosive corruption would be directly confronted. The huge supply could be purchased by Americans who are specially cleared, and be stored in the United States, perhaps by Security Council resolution assigned to the United Nations under American control for future medical emergencies.

The plan to buy entire Afghan opium crops would require renegotiation of several longstanding agreements, but if opium gum were purchased before it fell into the hands of traffickers, much of the most baneful corruption in Afghanistan would lose its footing. Would a purchase program completely eliminate the insurgency, or deprive the Taliban of all income? Perhaps some opium fields would be grown in ever more remote areas along the Pakistan frontier. The Taliban might well shake down those it can or steal from them, or go into other illicit lines of work. Then, however, the Taliban would be not pretenders of truth and faith, but revealed as the gangsters they are.

The latest American intelligence reports now confirm Afghanistan is on a “downward spiral.” It is past time to pull up.

James Nathan, a former Foreign Service officer, is the Khalid bin Sultan Eminent Scholar at Auburn University.

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