Since the idea of promoting international as well as locally licensed opium-for-morphine production was first proposed, some critics have charged that it is infeasible and unneeded. The Afghan government's lack of capacity to administer such a program, its endemic corruption, and inability to provide adequate security and law enforcement were seen as major stumbling blocks. So too were large price differentials between licit and illicit opium. But all of the objections to the legal production of opium cannot overcome the fact that poppy cultivation is currently central to the Afghan economy. It has been so for a long time, but as Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy notes in 'Afghanistan's Opium Production in Perspective,' "Afghanistan's opium production is the direct outcome of Cold War rivalries and conflicts waged by proxies who helped develop a thriving narcotic economy in the country." In particular, the Soviet Union's "scorched earth policy" of destroying agricultural acreage and processing facilities during their invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s led to increased poppy production, since the crop was able to thrive without the irrigation, fertilizers, or complex transportation network needed to bring more traditional crops to market.
Repeated efforts to find substitutes for the poppy crop have consistently floundered, including those undertaken by the United States. For example, in 2010, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced plans to donate up to $20 million to help Afghan farmers switch from poppies to other crops, but the effect has been negligible. Still, given the vagaries of the illicit opium market, Afghan farmers who grow poppies also cannot depend on a predictable income. Providing them with a stable, dependable source of income and fair wages from the licensed cultivation of poppies so they could feed their families and plan for their futures would be an appealing alternative to the lure of illicit, but uncertain, gains.
Recent estimates of major untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan with the potential to generate huge profits are seen by some as a panacea for the country's enormous development challenges. Others point to the sorry record of commodity-based economies as a double-edged sword. Commentators cite the example of Africa where a combination of mineral wealth and a thriving drug trade have, in many cases, shored up corrupt regimes, inflamed civil wars, taken countless lives, and caused all sorts of other mayhem at great cost to civilian populations who often receive little benefit even from the legal trade in mineral wealth and other natural resources. In terms of Afghanistan, even if the most optimistic estimates pan out, the country will not be able to reap any meaningful economic rewards from its mineral resources for many years to come. Well before then, it will have to find a way, among other pressing challenges, to continue its rebuilding, meet the basic needs of its people and support its growing, largely American-built, army.
So let us return to the idea of creating a legalized stream of economic support for Afghanistan based on the cultivation of opium poppies. Perhaps the most critical component of such an undertaking would be to widely publicize the formal approval of Afghan religious leaders, who could, as the Taliban did, make clear that the traditional Muslim injunction against addictive substances does not apply to opium if it is used as medicine to reduce human suffering. Also important to providing international legitimization to this plan without impinging on Afghan sovereignty would be to carry it out under the auspices of the World Health Organization, which could help provide price stabilization and set up parameters for acreage that would be devoted to poppies along with other types of agriculture. The business of "legal opium" could be managed by establishing a corporation with its own governing board that would include landowners along with the Afghan ministers of health, finance, and education to oversee the opium-to-morphine infrastructure and procedures. In order to guarantee the autonomy of this board and ensure that it is not viewed as an American- or NATO-imposed scheme, neutral Switzerland could be involved as well as Afghanistan's fellow Muslim-majority states Indonesia or Malaysia. Focusing on these and similar locations is particularly critical, since setting up facilities for the processing required to refine morphine from the poppy plant in locations distant from Afghanistan would help reduce illicit trafficking throughout the region. It would also allay potential Afghan suspicions that their neighbors might simply process the poppies into heroin and distribute it throughout the region, denying income to Afghanistan.