Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


New ideas for Afghan opium
Corriere della Sera - March 7th 2007

The idea to buy up Afghanistan’s opium crop and use it to increase production of morphine, being promoted by Italy’s Refounded Communists and by a former Canadian ambassador to NATO, Gordon Smith, is not as crazy an idea as it may sound. The idea sounds crazy only if you think opium is the essence of evil, so that to buy the crop will encourage Afghan farmers to carry on growing something that is evil. In fact, if it were really done properly, such a scheme would take Afghan farmers further away from evil, by taking them away from the grip of criminals, war-lords and Taliban insurgents. The real problem with the idea has nothing to do with opium or heroin. It has to do with cost. This idea can only work if western countries, including Italy, are willing to spend a lot of money on it—every year.

                Certainly, the current policy in Afghanistan is not working. NATO is fighting the Taliban insurgents, albeit with an inadequate supply of soldiers and equipment. The Taliban, however, have a more than adequate supply of money, thanks to their exploitation of the opium trade, and they are benefiting from the fact that ordinary Afghan citizens do not feel that their lives are getting better under the government of Hamid Karzai, in Kabul, and his American and NATO allies.

Lives are not improving in part because of the Taliban insurgency itself, but also because too few new roads, schools and hospitals are being built. Local farmers try to survive by growing crops which they can market in a country that is poor and has terrible infrastructure. The best of those, by far, is the opium poppy. Heroin has a high value and can be transported easily despite the bad roads. So NATO and the Karzai government respond by trying to eradicate the opium crops: spraying and burning as much as they can. It is no wonder that they are failing to “win the hearts and minds” of ordinary Afghan farmers: they are working hard to destroy their livelihoods, day by day.

Eradication is a hopelessly bad policy, in the realities of today’s Afghanistan. It plays right into the hands of the Taliban. Ultimately, everyone wishes that the demand for heroin in rich countries would diminish, so lowering prices and making the crop less attractive to farmers. But that is not going to happen either. Afghanistan currently produces more than 90% of the world’s opium crop, and its output is rising. Trade routes through neighbouring countries, whether Iran, Pakistan, Uzbekistan or others, are easy to find and impossible to police.

So there are really only two choices. Either NATO and the Afghan government should leave the opium farmers alone. Or the outside world should offer to buy up the whole opium harvest every year, taking it out of the hands of the criminal trade. This would be technically difficult, since it would be vital to set a price for the crop which did not simply encourage farmers to smuggle opium to criminals willing to pay an even higher price for a now scarce resource. The biggest problem, though, is cost.

No one knows for sure, but it is thought that Afghan farmers earn a total of around $700m a year from opium. The total income for all Afghans—including Taliban, smugglers, corrupt officials and others—from the business is estimated at about a third of the country’s GDP, and so about $2.8 billion a year. For the idea of purchasing opium for morphine to work, that overall income would have to be replaced, for everyone involved except the Taliban. It can be replaced for the farmers just by buying the crop, but replacing it for the others would be harder. It would have to be done every year. And it would have to be done in such a way as to have a hope of eventually providing Afghans with an alternative way to make a living.

The cost would not be an impossible amount. Let’s guess that it would involve $4 billion or more each year. That is roughly one-twentieth of what America alone is spending on the war in Iraq every year. The impossible thing would be getting everyone to agree to pay their share. And then there would arise another question: what to do if farmers in other countries get the idea of growing opium in order to demand that the western morphine fund should buy it?  


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