After years of hard work by drug warriors in Afghanistan, the country no longer produces 87 percent of the world's illicit opium. Now it produces 92 percent, according to the latest suspiciously precise estimate from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
On Tuesday, citing ties between opium trafficking and the Taliban insurgency, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa called upon NATO forces in Afghanistan to get more involved in efforts to stamp out the opium trade. This is exactly the right strategy to pursue if the aim is to alienate the Afghan people, undermine their government, and strengthen the insurgency.
The Taliban-opium connection goes back at least a decade. After they took control of Afghanistan in 1996, they encouraged opium poppy cultivation and took a cut from the trade, using the money to buy weapons and put up their buddies in Al Qaeda. In 1999, per the UNODC, Afghanistan had a record opium harvest of 4,565 tons.
The following year, the Taliban suddenly announced that growing poppies was contrary to Islam. The UNODC says the ban, enforced by the threat of summary execution, nearly eliminated cultivation, resulting in a 2001 opium harvest of less than 200 tons.
But the Taliban's reading of Islamic law conveniently did not require the destruction of opium stockpiles, much of which they controlled. The opium ban therefore looked like an attempt to profit from price increases while getting credit from the West for a firm anti-drug stance.
In any case, since losing power after the U.S. invasion in 2001, the Taliban seem to have forgotten their religious objections to opium, production of which hit an all-time high of more than 6,000 tons this year, up about 50 percent from 2005. "We are seeing a very strong connection between the increase in the [Taliban] insurgency on the one hand and the increase in cultivation on the other hand," the UNODC's Costa told The New York Times.
What is the nature of this connection? Poppy farmers welcome the Taliban because the Taliban offer them "protection." Protection from whom? From their own government, which is trying to destroy their livelihood under pressure from the U.S. and the U.K.
Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries, and the UNODC estimates that opium accounted for more than 50 percent of its GDP in 2005. By his own account, then, Costa is demanding that the Afghan government wipe out half of the country's economy, with conspicuous assistance from U.S. and British forces. Does that sound like a recipe for peace and stability?
It's no mystery why barely subsisting Afghanis choose to grow opium poppies instead of legal crops, contrary to the wishes of foreign governments. According to the UNODC, a hectare of poppies earned farmers some $5,400 last year, about 10 times what they could get by growing wheat.
Western governments, the U.S. foremost among them, created this incentive by banning opium to begin with, thereby enabling criminals (including terrorists) to earn a risk premium. Having artificially boosted the price of opium, the U.S. now asks desperately poor Afghan peasants to resist this financial attraction for the sake of Westerners who fail to resist the pharmacological attraction of heroin.
Even if drug warriors were successful in curbing Afghan opium production, an effort Costa says could take 20 years, there are plenty of other places to grow poppies. As with coca, the most that has been achieved by attempts to eradicate opium has been to move production from one country to another, with no lasting effect on drug use.
Meanwhile, a NATO-backed crackdown on opium would drive farmers further into the Taliban's arms and jeopardize Afghanistan's future. "Counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics efforts must reinforce each other," says Costa, "so as to stop the vicious circle of drugs funding terrorists and terrorists protecting drug traffickers." Prohibition started this vicious circle, and more vigorous enforcement will only strengthen it.