Afghanistan’s Dicey Opium Poppy Near-Monopoly

OxBlog‘s intrepid Afghanistan correspondent reports on poppies and pesticides. Here’s a sample paragraph.

My friend Mumtaz reports that a local commander near Kandahar recently told him: “If Karzai says, ‘Don’t grow poppy,’ I will still grow poppy. But if Khalilzad says ‘Don’t grow poppy,’ well, then I will be poor.” (Zalmay Khalilzad is the American ambassador to Afghanistan). The Americans have hit a number of heroin laboratories and drug markets belonging to warlords, and could presumably knock out a lot more if they chose. It’s a dangerous game — there are some very rich folks out there (including some in the Kabul government) who could start stirring up trouble for the U.S. occupation if it cuts into their opium profits. But I think at this stage, we’re better off taking the risk and hitting the traffickers than burdening the farmers with a major eradication program. Give the big donor-funded agricultural projects another couple years to demonstrate alternative cash crops (almonds, raisins, cumin, etc.), set up rural credit and finance institutions, and fix up irrigation structures, so the farmers have genuine alternatives to poppy. Then the government can start enforcing a ban at the farmer level. The U.N. has also suggested scheduling big public works projects to coincide with that labor-intensive opium harvest season, to draw labor away from poppy farmers. It’s an interesting idea, which to my knowledge hasn’t been tried, but deserves to be.

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