“The farmers are not our enemy,” the State Department’s Richard Holbrooke declared in June, referring to Afghans who grow opium poppies. Since the U.S. government’s official goal is to wipe out their livelihood, the farmers could be forgiven for misunderstanding. To reassure those who interpret ripping up their crops as a hostile act, Holbrooke said, “we’re going to phase out eradication.”
Acknowledging a truth that the Bush administration steadfastly refused to concede, Holbrooke, the special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, told the Associated Press that “eradication is a waste of money.” Although “it might destroy some acreage,” he explained, “it didn’t reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar.” Indeed, “it just helped the Taliban” by driving farmers into the arms of the theocratic rebels.
Although Afghanistan’s counternarcotics minister responded to Holbrooke’s remarks by insisting that “our strategy’s perfect,” he may be the only person outside the Taliban who thinks so. Last year, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan produced 40 times as much opium as it did in 2001, the year of the U.S. invasion. It supplied 93 percent of the world’s illicit opium, the export value of which was equivalent to one-third of the country’s gross domestic product.
Instead of seeking to wipe out poppy cultivation, the Obama administration plans to focus its anti-drug activities in Afghanistan on laboratories and traffickers. Although that approach may alienate fewer farmers, it is not likely to have a noticeable impact on heroin consumption. The UNODC reports that between 1998 and 2007—the U.N.’s official “Decade Against Drug Abuse”—estimated illegal production of opium more than doubled worldwide, while the average U.S. retail price for a gram of heroin, adjusted for purity and inflation, fell from $597 to $364.