Uprooting Afghanistan's Poppies

It's our problem, too.

Afghanistan planted enough opium poppies last year to blanket 20 Manhattans, supply about 90 percent of the world's demand, bankroll the Taliban and ensnare millions of addicts at home and abroad. That bumper crop came after the U.S. and its partners spent some $10 billion on counternarcotics efforts over the past decade. It also preceded this year's drawdown of combat forces. So expect this year's poppy yield to be even bigger.

Can anything be done to keep Afghanistan from becoming the world's premiere narco-state?

A utopian economist would simply decriminalize and regulate opiates, thereby vaporizing ill-gotten gains, generating tax revenue and funding treatment programs. With its tiny farms, poor infrastructure and labor-intensive cultivation, Afghanistan would have a hard time competing in a legal global market.

Even if Afghanistan were allowed to join the small ranks of licensed producers of opiates for medical use, as some have advocated, its production costs would be about 10 times higher than those of Australia, a major exporter. Moreover, Afghanistan's government wouldn't be strong enough to prevent legal production from leaking into the illegal market, a problem that has bedeviled India.

Counternarcotics programs tried by the U.S. and others haven't worked either: Coercive eradication of poppies just makes the poor farmers who grow them even poorer. The success of crop substitution depends on elusive progress in power generation, road-building, produce-packaging and the like. None of Afghanistan's neighbors can reliably seal borders and interdict contraband. The trade's informal payment mechanisms are hard to trace. And corrupt officials in Afghanistan's government are in cahoots with the traffickers.

Nonetheless, there are some courses of action worth pursuing. First, don't walk away from the fight. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has cut its counternarcotics staff in Afghanistan almost in half. And the Department of Homeland Security expects to do the same with its customs personnel at the end of this year. Training programs for the Afghan counternarcotics police are in disarray. Sustaining U.S. manpower levels in these areas would be a modest investment with potentially great returns.

Second, go harder after the money, targeting traffickers rather than farmers. Worldwide, narcotics agents confiscate 10 percent to 15 percent of illegal drugs, but only 0.5 percent of drug-related money and assets. Drug gangs provide the Taliban with a third of its budget -- using Dubai as a critical financial hub. Global mechanisms are needed to enable all countries to quickly freeze traffickers' assets when they are found. And as the U.S. special inspector general for Afghanistan has long argued, Afghanistan needs its own special anti-corruption strategy.

Third, Afghanistan's benefactors could do more to help farmers prosper with other crops. More cold storage facilities, for instance, would enable them to get a better price for their fruits and vegetables. And with longer-term aid, farmers could be encouraged to invest in orchards that take years to mature. Roads and irrigation for areas close to urban markets would pay off fastest. Such smart investments should be combined with the threat of coercive poppy eradication. One approach can't work without the other.

Finally, to paraphrase a motto from the Barack Obama administration in another context, "Don't do stupid stuff." The U.S. and U.K. just withdrew from Helmand province, which grows 48 percent of Afghanistan's opium. If you can't guarantee security there, maybe that's not where you invest in irrigation and roads. By the same token, cutting aid to those areas that have reduced cultivation may just encourage a resurgence. Uprooting the poppy is a project for the decades -- and is inextricably bound up with Afghanistan's prospects for peace and prosperity. Success will require ingenuity and persistence.

--Editors: James Gibney, Mary Duenwald

To contact the editor on this story:
David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net