U.S. Marines walking through a poppy field in Helmand province, Afghanistan
After days of intense posturing, Secretary of State John Kerry and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have tentatively agreed to a deal that will keep American troops in Afghanistan beyond next year. The Obama administration finds itself occupying an ever-shrinking middle ground between negotiating with the Taliban and cutting American losses by clearing out. The pressure to select one of these options, however, is little more than a choice between two evils, both of which would forfeit U.S. interests in the region. To find a “responsible end” to this protracted war, the Obama administration must tackle what the U.S. government has deemed for years an unsolvable problem: the Afghan opium trade.
According to a report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, opium production in Afghanistan has surged for a third consecutive year, making up nearly 90 percent of global production. With the impending departure of the NATO combat mission in 2014, along with billions of dollars of Western military and civilian aid, the importance of opium — and by extension the heroin trade — to the Afghan economy will dramatically increase.
For over a decade, the country’s lucrative narcotics industry has been a major financial pipeline for the Taliban as well as a principal driver of corruption. There is so much money to be had in the $65 billion global opium and heroine market that powerful political players, from police chiefs to governors, inevitably want in. As a result, the state of security in Afghanistan has become a bleak representation of the tug-of-war between those seeking poppy profits and those battling the Taliban. Nearly 500,000 farming families, about 20 percent of the Afghan population, depend on the cultivation of poppy. As such, the Taliban has sought to gain support — as well as a vital channel of income for their operations — by assisting poppy farmers.
Although a sizable number of rural farmers do not actively back the Taliban, many end up becoming subservient to the group because there is virtually no crop as accessible and profitable in Afghanistan as poppy. Recent blight and bad weather have led to historically high opium prices, where a kilogram of harvested opium can fetch as much as $203 (compare that to $1.25 per kilo of rice). In a country where civil servants on average earn $70 a month, impoverished farmers cannot afford to ignore such a profit opportunity, even though they risk becoming entangled with the Taliban.
If negotiations continue to center exclusively on the details (and inevitability) of American withdrawal, the U.S. might as well resign itself to the so-called “zero option” of withdrawing completely by the end of next year. Instead, the U.S. and Afghan governments should consider laying the groundwork for a strong advisory presence in the aftermath of withdrawal, one that will help Afghan officials pursue a new counter-narcotics strategy.
The U.S. and Afghanistan should explore the viability of legalizing poppy and selling it to the international community, to be used in the production of medicines such as morphine and codeine. There is recent precedent for this approach. Facing a domestic heroin crisis in the 1970s, the U.S. government pressured Turkey, then the world’s main producer of opium, to curb trafficking of the drug. In response, Turkey licensed farmers to legally grow poppy for the morphine trade. The U.S., for its part, gave Turkish producers market-protected status, promising to buy 80 percent of Turkish opium for the production of American painkillers.
For Afghan farmers to have any chance of escaping the Taliban-controlled informal economy, it is up to the U.S. and its NATO allies to incorporate them into a legitimate supply chain. Since the Afghan government is too weak to effectively track the crop, the U.S. must expand its current advisory presence, starting with its Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) program in Kabul, in order to empower the government to command greater oversight over domestic narcotics production. If the U.S. can establish a government-subsidized planting program, much-needed revenue will become available to the Afghan government.
Given that the U.S. and other donors are already paying for about 90 percent of Afghan public spending, this new strategy would require the fiscal indulgence of a Congress embittered by a long, fruitless war. No doubt, it’s a tough pill to swallow. However, in view of the corruption and instability created by the Afghan drug trade, it might be a pill worth swallowing.
Demetri Papageorgiou is studying Government and Economics in the College of Arts & Sciences at Cornell University.