The Politics of Opium in Afghanistan

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Afghanistan is a mess. The Taliban isn't merely 'resurgent,' it has taken over many parts of the country it once ruled. It has become the authority in many of Afghanistan's key provinces, and its militants are creeping increasingly closer to Kabul, the country's capital. Allied and Afghan soldiers are almost constantly under attack, and the Taliban can count on the support of many local farmer and villagers.

The main reason for the Taliban's success in recent months is that the Afghan government has never been able to count on the support of the country's villagers, who make up the majority of the population and the backbone of the Taliban. President Hamid Karzai surrounded himself with people who were his friends for decades. Sadly, the main goal of these individuals was not to democratize and modernize Afghanistan but to line their own pockets. Afghanistan under Karzai is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.

This excessive corruption isn't just a problem for Westerners, but a tremendous problem for Afghans themselves. They have to pay government officials bribes; they have to assuage them whenever they want to do something. Their country is, as they see it, not hijacked by modernizing forces but by corrupt ones.

Additionally, the United States has forced Kabul to go after opium farmers. Entire opium crops have been destroyed in recent years. Entire families were ruined as a result. Many poor farmers had to take loans from traffickers before being able to grow poppy fields. When they couldn’t repay those loans, many ended up selling their daughters to those who loaned them the money.

From a policy perspective the problem with this anti-opium approach is two-fold:

1. Opium is grown because there are simply too many opium farms in Afghanistan. Since the central government is not allow to take any 'opium money,' the money made by opium goes straight into the pockets of the Taliban, who use it to buy weapons and to invest in villages and neighborhoods, which increases their support base.

2. The anti-opium policy of NATO and the Afghan government means that crops are destroyed. This ruins farmers completely. They are no longer able to take care of their families. The only ones providing them with an alternative are the Taliban. Thus, they turn to the Taliban for protection and may even join the extremist Muslim organization.

As Christopher Hitches recently explained on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," Afghan farmers do not have a whole lot of choices when it comes to the crops they can grow. The country is incredibly unfriendly. All one has to do to reach that conclusion is look at a map of Afghanistan and see one big desert. It's not a place where farmers can successfully grow beautiful tulips or delicious rice. If they want to take care of their family they have one choice only: To grow, or not to grow, opium.

The anti-opium crusade in Afghanistan is destroying entire crops there, and by doing so, turning the village population against the United States and the central government. Astonishingly, the U.S. buys 80% of the opium it needs for painkillers and other medicinal purposes from Turkey and India. The story becomes even more astonishing when one realizes that the World Health Organization complained that there is a global shortage of medicinal opium.

If Turkey was a country similar to Afghanistan this approach would make sense. But it is not. Turkey has a very diverse economy, which will become even more diverse in the years ahead. The AK Party (or Justice and Development Party) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Abdullah Gul has tremendously liberalized the country's economy in the years they were in power, and will continue to do as long as they remain in office. Turkish companies produce a wide variety of products (especially textiles and agricultural goods) which are all exported to Western countries. The same can be said for India, which has one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

In short, buying opium from Turkey and India (and against a higher price) and not from Afghanistan (against a lower price) is bad politics. The United States should stop buying opium from Turkey and, instead, buy up entire harvests in Afghanistan. These crops could then be used for painkillers and other drugs legal in the West. Such a change in policy would help Afghanistan and the central government tremendously. Farmers would suddenly have an alternative. They would be able to choose between the Taliban and the West, free from the oppression and blackmail of the Taliban. At the same time, little would be lost for Turkey which produces many other goods the U.S. can import.

All the talk about a possible military surge in Afghanistan, and a radical change in policy, will be rendered useless unless the U.S. starts implementing a common sense approach towards opium. Success or failure will, to a large degree, depend on whether or not the U.S. continues its unwise policy of alienating Afghan farmers. It is quite possible that the Taliban will make a comeback in the coming years, and that the central Afghan government will have to give them some political power. Conversely, if the U.S. buys up opium crops from Afghan farmers, it will weaken the standing of the Taliban tremendously, even if the Taliban return to power.

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