Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York and former president and professor emeritus of history at Brown University, is the author of The Emergence of Modern Afghanistan: Politics of Reform and Modernization 1880-1946, which will be reissued by Stanford University Press in November.
The year 2014 is fast approaching and with it, the end of the allied forces mission in Afghanistan. At the close of that year, as the president confirmed in his speech from Bagram Air Force Base, the United States and NATO will hand over responsibility for the security of Afghanistan to its own forces. But in the meantime, events on the ground are conspiring against some of the long-term policy goals that the allied nations who committed troops to Afghanistan had hoped would bring peace and stability to that country. The recent burning of Korans as well as the massacre of civilians, not to mention U.S. troops urinating on enemy corpses, posing for photos with the remains of Taliban insurgents, and similar inflammatory actions have contributed to anti-American and anti-NATO sentiments in Afghanistan as well as in neighboring countries, especially Pakistan. Given these developments, President Karzai, in an effort to prove to his nation that above all he is an Afghan nationalist and guardian of Afghan sovereignty, has often been forced to publicly distance himself from America, making demands such as that U.S. forces be confined to their bases and withdraw completely from Afghanistan by the end of 2013. In addition, the Afghan government has insisted that NATO forces stop "night raids" on suspected insurgents' hideouts, which recently resulted in an agreement that should give Afghan authorities veto over controversial special operations raids. For its part, the Pakistani parliament has demanded a halt to all U.S. drone flights over border areas that provide safe haven and supply routes for the Taliban. Further, the Pakistani government has blockaded the flow of U.S. materiel supplying American troops in Afghanistan.
These challenges are arising in the midst of a global economic slowdown that is making it difficult for even those nations rich with resources to chart a reliable course for their future. Economic uncertainties have added to the growing call in the United States and other NATO countries to end the allies' presence in Afghanistan—and hence, the enormous cost in terms of lives lost and dollars spent—even sooner than planned. For Afghanistan itself, which despite some $18 billion in U.S. aid alone over the past decade remains one of the poorest countries in the world on the United Nations´s Human Development Index (registering 174th out of 178 countries), the economic outlook remains bleak. Add in a growing Taliban insurgency against the allied powers along with ethnic, religious, and tribal conflicts and tensions as well as interference from neighboring countries such as Pakistan, Iran, and India who support their proxies inside Afghanistan, and what's brewing is a recipe for disaster on many fronts, particularly in regard to the Afghan economy once the United States and NATO have largely departed.
Though in his speech from Afghanistan announcing a pact that spells out the U.S. relationship with Afghanistan over the next decade President Obama promised U.S. aid in developing the Afghan economy, no specifics were given and no plan was announced. Hence, there is little reason to believe that the economic situation in Afghanistan will continue to be anything but precarious. Indeed, according to official Afghan sources, 80 percent of Afghanistan's national budget is constituted by international aid from 62 different donor countries, more than a dozen large international organizations, and about 2,000 international and national nongovernmental organizations. There is no assurance that these countries and organizations will continue their assistance over the next 10 years. In light of all these factors, the economic chaos that is likely to descend upon Afghanistan in the absence of either a stable central government or the realistic prospect of a peaceful resolution or reconciliation between Kabul and the resurgent Taliban will only be compounded by leaving the fate of Afghanistan's largest cash crop—opium poppies—to itself. Although the current U.S. administration abandoned its predecessor's flawed focus on the eradication of poppy crops, the White House and its advisers have fared little better in their own Afghan-centered "war on drugs," and, in his remarks, President Obama made no mention of how his administration will address the problem represented by the poppy fields that are the source of the opium that bankrolls corrupt government officials and the Taliban alike, providing around astonishing 90 percent of the world's heroin. Further, the 2011 Afghanistan Opium Survey of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports that there has been a "dramatic 133 percent increase in the farm-gate value of opium compared with 2010." The survey further reveals that "The farm-gate value of opium production alone is US $1.4 billion or 9 percent of the country's GDP; the total net value of the opiate economy amounts to U.S. $2.4 billion...an amount that cannot be easily substituted by other economic activities." In the opinion of Yury Fedotov, executive director of the U.N, Office on Drugs and Crime, "Opium is therefore a significant part of the Afghan economy and provides considerable funding to the insurgency and fuels corruption." Further, as The Washington Post recently reported, Afghan Deputy Minister for Counternarcotics Mohammed Azhar declared, "The price of opium is now seven times higher than wheat...so our farmers have no disincentive to cultivate poppy." This conclusion is backed by the U.N. report, which notes that in 2011, there was a 43 percent increase in the price of dry opium at harvest time compared to 2010 and that farmers surveyed in 2011 cited the high sale price as the most important reason (59 percent) for cultivating opium poppy. In that connection, it is also important to note that while the Taliban receive only a small portion of the income from poppies, the amount is still significant considering the worth of the harvest.
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.
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."
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.
Local tribes along with domestic and foreign private business interests could be stakeholders in this plan. Broad based buy-in would help to spread the risk and improve its viability as would designating a set tax rate on the income from the legal sale of poppies and using those funds for Afghan reconstruction, particularly to build badly needed schools and hospitals and support other projects that would improve the Afghan economy as well as the lives of the country's men, women, and children. Such investments might also aid in efforts to not only provide a secure base for Afghanistan's economy but also stimulate social, cultural, and political modernization after decades of civil war, economic dislocation, military invasions, and destruction. In addition, given the plan's potential for greatly limiting the flow of illicit opium across their borders, regional states such as Iran, Russia, and China, as well as the European Union, would welcome any effort to reduce their own severe domestic drug addiction problems.
Since economic progress in Afghanistan is key to political stability, the "poppies-for-medicine" idea needs to be combined with other promising proposals for rural development that build upon some notable, though under-publicized success stories, such a the National Solidarity Program. Created in 2003 by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development Program to promote the ability of Afghan communities to identify, plan, manage, and monitor their own development projects, the largely unheralded program now reaches 29,000 (of some 45,000 in total) villages. Instead of continuing to waste billions of dollars on ineffective, top-down "state-building" projects that serve to line the pockets of foreign advisers and undermine national capacity, the rehabilitation program works to empower Afghans at the tribal and village levels to make decision affecting their own lives and livelihoods. Locally—meaning both in Afghanistan and neighboring states—there is also the potential for the cultivation of spices; the ever-growing global demand for spices and seasonings is forecast to reach more than 4.6 billion pounds by the year 2015.
Naturally, the effective transformation of Afghanistan's illicit opium production into a health industry with global potential for doing good will not solve all of the country's many problems but it will go a long way towards providing a stable economic base for a nation that is now teetering on the brink of disaster and primed to devolve into a cycle of internecine violence that will continue to take a horrific toll on the civilian population. As the United States debates the idea of ramping up its departure from Afghanistan, the time is right—in fact, long overdue—to lead the call for measures that have real potential for helping to counter the Taliban and build a just, functioning, and sustainable Afghan government supported by a stable economy. Without such efforts Afghanistan's future as a narco-state is not just a dangerous possibility, it is fast becoming a reality.