In this Sunday's New York Times Magazine, Thomas Schweich, a former State Department counternarcotics official, asks, "Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?" Schweich takes 5,500 words to tell his tale of how the good work of brave, committed drug warriors like himself was stymied by "an odd cabal of timorous Europeans, myopic media outlets, corrupt Afghans, blinkered Pentagon officers, politically motivated Democrats and the Taliban." But the short answer to the headine question is yes. A more interesting question, one that Schweich never asks: Why is Afghanistan a narco-state? Schweich warns that the opium trade finances the Taliban insurgency (as well as President Hamid Karzai's allies) and bemoans the corruption, violence, and lawlessness associated with it. Yet he never acknowledges that all these phenomena are consequences of drug prohibition, a policy the United States has insisted on exporting to other countries for nearly a century. It's not hard to see why he omits this point, since his solution to prohibition-related problems is more vigorous enforcement of prohibition.
Schweich repeatedly condemns U.S., British, and Afghan officials who are reluctant to support a more aggressive crackdown on opium, who oppose tactics such as aerial herbicide spraying and execution of traffickers. He never considers the possibility that their resistance might be due to something other than timorousness, myopia, corruption, blindness, political partisanship, or fanatical hatred of America. Yet some critics of Schweich's gung-ho approach, including American and British military officials, view the anti-drug fight as not just distracting but counterproductive, alienating Afghan farmers and strengthening the Taliban. Schweich reports he was astonished to discover that "British forces—centered in Helmand—actually issued leaflets and bought radio advertisements telling the local criminals that the British military was not part of the anti-poppy effort." Schweich brags that he put a stop to that. But is it really so crazy to reassure people whose support you're trying to win (or whose violent opposition you're trying to avoid) that your aim is not to deprive them of their livelihood or to wipe out half of their country's economy?
Schweich also never quite explains the ultimate goal of "the anti-poppy effort." He writes that "eradication was an essential component of successful anti-poppy efforts in Guatemala, Southeast Asia and Pakistan." And now Afghanistan supplies 90 percent of the world's opium. If Schweich has his way and opium eradication there becomes a top U.S. priority, and if it is ultimately "successful," surely that will be the end of it. No one will grow opium poppies anywhere else, so heroin use will disappear.
Here's a fun fact Schweich mentions: The land devoted to opium poppies in Afghanistan, even at the current record level of production, totals just 637 square miles, less than a third the size of Rhode Island.