The New York Times reports that "the Taliban are believed to reap as much as $300 million a year from Afghanistan's opium trade, which now makes up 90 percent of the world's total." That revenue "is enough, the Americans say, to sustain all of the Taliban's military operations in southern Afghanistan for an entire year." The solution: "American commanders are planning to cut off the Taliban's main source of money…by pouring thousands of troops into the three provinces that bankroll much of the group's operations [Helmand, Kandahar and Zabul]." What could go wrong? The story suggests a few causes for concern:
1. Although the Taliban "often fade away when confronted by a conventional army," they "will probably stand and fight" to protect their revenue stream.
2. "The terrain is a guerrilla's dream. In addition to acres of shoulder-high poppy plants, rows and rows of hard-packed mud walls, used to stand up grape vines, offer ideal places for ambushes and defense."
3. "The opium is tilled in heavily populated areas…The prospect of heavy fighting in populated areas could further alienate the Afghan population."
4. "Among the ways the Taliban are believed to make money from the opium trade is by charging farmers for protection; if the Americans and British attack, the Taliban will be expected to make good on their side of that bargain."
5. Opium poppies are "by far the most lucrative crop an Afghan can farm."
6. "The opium trade now makes up nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, American officials say."
7. "The country's opium traffickers typically offer incentives that no Afghan government official can: they can guarantee a farmer a minimum price for the crop as well as taking it to market, despite the horrendous condition of most of Afghanistan's roads."
8. "Even if the Americans are able to cut production, shortages could drive up prices and not make a significant dent in the Taliban's profits."
As in the case of prohibition-related violence in Mexico, the Obama administration sees a problem created by the war on drugs—in this case, subsidies for insurgents and terrorists—as a reason to intensify the war on drugs. This makes even less sense in the context of Afghanistan, where the U.S. is trying to win enough hearts and minds to defeat the Taliban and leave behind a reasonably stable government. I'm not sure that's a realistic goal, but it is certainly undermined by a campaign to wipe out most of the country's meager economy. Compared to foreigners who blow up your houses while trying to destroy your livelihood, the Taliban's protection racket looks pretty good.
More on the never-ending, never-succeeding crackdown on Afghan opium here.