How to Prevent Afghanistan from Becoming a Narco-State

Attempts to eradicate Afghan poppy farming have failed.

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[Photo Gallery: Afghans Protest Over Koran Burning.]

We can be sure that the Taliban are well aware of these facts and figures. In 1995, not long after they came to prominence in Afghanistan, they tried to eradicate opium production citing the Islamic proscription against addiction. But they soon realized that in key provinces where they needed support—particularly Kandahar and Helmand, which are also the main regions where poppies are cultivated—not only was the population resisting this edict, tribal warlords were actually mobilizing against the Taliban in order to protect the poppy harvest. Hence, the Taliban sought an interpretation of the Koran that would help address this dilemma and found the answer they were looking for in the idea that such religious laws can be set aside in cases of extreme need, such as imminent starvation. Thus, if farmers were to starve without the income generated by opium poppies, then it was permissible to cultivate the plant. Recently published reports clearly show that the Taliban have now even moved decisively toward active promotion and protection of the poppy crop and its growers: In Helmand Province the chief of police—who is known as a committed opponent of the Taliban—was injured in a suicide attack that targeted him. At the same time, in a nearby bazaar, Taliban fighters tried to blow up tractors used in poppy-eradication efforts. The police chief survived, but a number of officers were killed in the police station and the bazaar. The message from the Taliban to the poppy growers and other local populations who depend on income from the crop is clear: Not only will they help protect the poppy fields, they will use lethal force again those who attempt to eradicate the crop. Thus have the Taliban set themselves up as the protectors of the peasants, whose support they need.

[Read the U.S. News debate: Should the U.S. Withdraw from Afghanistan Sooner?]

Given this reality, America and its NATO allies cannot unwittingly stand by while Afghanistan continues on as the world's greatest source of heroin—an endeavor in which it is aided by its regional neighbors. Tajikistan, for example, is one of the world's key transit states in the international illegal trafficking of drugs. According to the United Nations Development Programme, "Up to 100 [tons] of heroin passes through Tajikistan every year," and the use of its territory "as a key conduit for drug flows from Afghanistan is set to increase." In light of all these factors, the time has come for policymakers to revisit an idea that never gained traction but, with a few adjustments, could help ensure that a plan is put in place that will benefit the Afghan people while at the same time reduce the global scourge of the illegal drug trade.

In 2005, an international think tank, the Senlis Council, now called the International Council for Security and Development, suggested an alternative to endless and seemingly bound-to-fail efforts to eradicate the poppy crop. Their idea was to institute an Afghan adaptation of an American–supported opium control scheme that had proven successful in India and Turkey where the controlled and legal cultivation of poppies was carried out through village-based licensing and production of pharmaceutical morphine. It was hoped that such an approach would help many Afghans escape from the illicit grip of the drug lords and the Taliban, while providing a basis for broader sustainable economic growth. Such an approach would also address the chronic underutilization of pain-relieving opiates in much of the developing world. In that connection, it is shocking to note that 80 percent of the global population has little or no access to morphine, an inexpensive and highly effective pain medication derived from the same opium poppies that are the source of heroin. Even leaders of Human Rights Watch have weighed in on the need to expand access to morphine. Diederik Lohman, a senior researcher with Human Rights Watch, recently compared the effects of unrelieved pain to torture, noting that, "Many countries have become so zealous in trying to limit access to controlled substances that their regulations have started interfering with availability for legitimate medical purposes. You could call them collateral damage of the war on drugs."