How to End Another (Anti-)Opium War

I’ve been too busy with other projects lately to follow up on some news reports that relate to my recent excerpts from Rory Stewart’s travels in Afghanistan, in particular Anne Applebaum’s column last Tuesday advocating control rather than eradication of opium, the country’s largest cash crop by far.

Of course it isn’t fashionable right now to argue for any legal form of opiate cultivation. But look at the evidence. At the moment, Afghanistan’s opium exports account for somewhere between one-third and two-thirds of the country’s gross domestic product, depending on whose statistics you believe. The biggest producers are in the southern provinces where the Taliban is at its strongest, and no wonder: Every time a poppy field is destroyed, a poor person becomes poorer — and more likely to support the Taliban against the Western forces who wrecked his crops. Yet little changes: The amount of land dedicated to poppy production grew last year by more than 60 percent, as The Post reported last month….

Yet by far the most depressing aspect of the Afghan poppy crisis is that it exists at all — because it doesn’t have to. To see what I mean, look at the history of Turkey, where once upon a time the drug trade also threatened the country’s political and economic stability. Just like Afghanistan, Turkey had a long tradition of poppy cultivation. Just like Afghanistan, Turkey worried that poppy eradication could “bring down the government.” Just like Afghanistan, Turkey — this was the era of “Midnight Express“– was identified as the main source of the heroin sold in the West. Just like in Afghanistan, a ban was tried, and it failed.

As a result, in 1974 the Turks, with American and U.N. support, tried a different tactic. They began licensing poppy cultivation for the purpose of producing morphine, codeine and other legal opiates. Legal factories were built to replace the illegal ones. Farmers registered to grow poppies, and they paid taxes. You wouldn’t necessarily know this from the latest White House drug strategy report– which devotes several pages to Afghanistan but doesn’t mention Turkey — but the U.S. government still supports the Turkish program, even requiring U.S. drug companies to purchase 80 percent of what the legal documents euphemistically refer to as “narcotic raw materials” from the two traditional producers, Turkey and India.

Why not add Afghanistan to this list?

Registan contributor Joshua Foust notes an ominous sign that the U.S. seems to be taking the opposite approach.

President Bush has named William Wood as the new ambassador to Afghanistan…. Wood hails from Colombia, which makes sense. The theory must be that he has experience running an anti-narcotics effort. Of course, the anti-cocaine effort in Columbia is an abysmal failure, and repeating the same tactics in the anti-opium effort in Afghanistan look set to make the security problems—to say nothing of the drug problem—far, far worse.

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Filed under Afghanistan, drugs, Turkey, U.S.

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