One reason for the Taliban’s resilience in Afghanistan is the big money they make from the opium trade. Attempts to cut off external financing for the Taliban have failed since it generates so much money within the country.
The US has tried destroying the poppy crop. It has tried to use friendly mullahs to denounce opium as unIslamic. It has sought to promote grapes, saffron and high-yielding wheat as alternatives to poppy. None of these approaches has worked. In despair, some analysts want the US to buy the entire poppy crop in Afghanistan, and then destroy it.
All these approaches are escapist, and fail to come to grips with ground realities. The Afghan government barely exists in much of the country, and many officials in rural areas are corrupt or in league with the Taliban. They cannot be depended on to destroy the poppy crop, not even with support from US helicopters. Many Afghans admit that drugs are unIslamic, but the profitability of poppy cultivation has easily overcome their moral scruples, especially since the damage is ultimately inflicted on white infidels in distant lands.
Since all proposed remedies so far have failed, we need to think out of the box and come up with a totally new approach. Forget any military or religious approach to the problem. Instead, let us understand what the laws of supply and demand imply in the opium context.
To produce opium, Afghan farmers lance poppy plants, and painstakingly collect the latex that oozes out. The dried latex is called opium. It contains up to 12% morphine, along with codeine and alkaloids such as thebaine and nocapine. Morphine, codeine and other processed alkaloids have medical uses as painkillers. But drug lords process these alkaloids into heroin, and sell this highly addictive drug at sky-high prices on western streets.
Opium production is banned globally, save in India where it is produced on regulated farms under government supervision. Most opium production is illicit, and Afghanistan accounts for nine-tenths of it. The Taliban levy a tax on Afghan farmers and also buy opium to be processed and smuggled abroad.
Turkey was once a major opium producer, but banned it many years ago. Turkey and Australia now grow poppies under government regulation, but they do not use the manual route of lancing poppies and scraping off the ooze. Instead they mechanically harvest the entire poppy crop. This is called poppy straw, and it is then chemically processed to extract medical alkaloids like morphine.
Some international medical groups have complained that there is a global shortage of medical morphine, and that Africa in particular is condemned to needless pain for want of enough morphine. These groups believe the right approach is for the US to buy up the whole Afghan poppy crop and process this into morphine for medical use. Many hard-headed military and policy experts also think this can be an effective way of depriving the Taliban of opium income.
Problem: these experts are ignoring basic economics. Today, the Afghan poppy crop is grown mainly in southern provinces like Helmand. If the US or some medical council tries to buy up Helmand’s poppy production, opium will become scarce in the black market and prices will skyrocket. This will induce other provinces to take up poppy cultivation. Indeed, cultivation will also spread rapidly to neighbouring countries (Iran, Pakistan, Turkmenistan , Uzbekistan and Tajikistan) and the resultant opium will be smuggled into Afghanistan. The Taliban will, of course, profit handsomely from this illicit trade.
Basic economics says that any strategy that makes opium scarce will fail, since it will encourage further cultivation. The solution lies in increasing the supply of opium so greatly that its price crashes, making cultivation unprofitable.
How can we achieve this? The US could ask Australia to licence a big jump in poppy straw production, guaranteeing to buy and process the entire production into opiates. These opiates could then be dumped in Afghanistan. Afghan opium prices will crash and farmers will turn to other crops.
An alternative strategy could be for the US to legalize drug use. Once heroin becomes legal, its street price will plummet, and so will the Afghan price. However, political and religious opposition to legalizing drug use in the US is very strong. There will be much less opposition to dumping opiates in Afghanistan. Indeed, US farm belt legislators may even suggest poppy cultivation (with safeguards) in the US, providing farmers with a lucrative new crop.