Any national counter-narcotics strategy for Afghanistan must begin with a preface noting the geographical variations of the country. In 2006, the southern province of Helmand accounted for 46% of Afghanistan’s opium production. To the east of Helmand, Kandahar produced eight percent. In other words, the majority of Afghanistan’s opium economy is built on production in two southern provinces. Of the remainder, 25% is produced in the northern belt close to the borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, with lighter concentrations in the eastern and western provinces. Based on the UNODC’s observations of recent opium planting, southern pre-eminence is likely to intensify further in 2007 . The distribution of production correlates strongly with areas of ongoing insurgency/terrorism and coalition fatalities. Using NATO’s divisions of Afghanistan, Regional Command South, which includes Helmand and Kandahar provinces, is where 62% of the country’s opium is produced and where the coalition has suffered close to two-thirds of its combat deaths . Basically, people are dying where poppies are thriving. (source)
Any source of funding for Taliban and Al Qaeda is an important center of gravity for the counterjihad. This seems to be unbelievably easy to solve, as there is a worldwide shortage of Opium to use for legal medicines. Why not pay the opium farmers in Helmand the same amount of money that Al Qaeda and other smugglers pay for opium and use it to produce much-needed pain-killers? It is a much better answer than interdiction and crop destruction.
Steve R. states at Transform, there are two problems with this scenario.
- Current world-wide use of legal opiates is 400 metric tons per year. The UN opium licensing operation is currently stockpiling roughly 800 metric tons of opium (two years’ supply). Afghanistan’s current production is 610 metric tons per year, and rising. It is likely that further demand on Afghanistan’s opium will simply increase Afghan opium production under the same farmers, warlords, and Taliban.
- Steve R. states that Afghanistan is a failed state and war zone. I wouldn’t go that far, but government control more the exception than the rule in Afghanistan, especially in the Pashtun south. The security and infrastructure situation also means that Afghan unit costs could be as much as ten times the current unit cost for opium.
So what is it, a good or bad idea?
It’s better to pay the farmers for 610 metric tons of opium than to have it all flooding the EU and US streets in the form of cheap heroin, with the revenues paying for weapons and salaries for Al Qaeda. There are contractual and social solutions for the problems noted in Transform, and it would help to decouple the ordinary people in Helmand from Al Qaeda and associated criminal gangs. Even if we don’t have anywhere to put the opium and end up destroying it, it’s cheaper than and preferable to abandoning Afghanistan to a new Taliban/Al-Qaeda occupation and dealing with the resulting nuclear Iran.