I read about this years ago, and it’s the kind of “Duh!” idea that makes you instantly change your perspective on an issue. But Christopher Hitchens brings it up again in last week’s column: why don’t we buy up Afghan farmers’ opium crops instead of trying to eradicate them?
As Hitchens points out:
We don’t have to smoke the stuff once we have purchased it: It can be burned or thrown away or perhaps more profitably used to manufacture the painkillers of which the United States currently suffers a shortage. (As it is, we allow Turkey to cultivate opium poppy fields for precisely this purpose.) Why not give Afghanistan the contract instead? At one stroke, we help fill its coffers and empty the main war chest of our foes while altering the “hearts-and-minds” balance that has been tipping away from us.
The “war chest of our foes” is a particularly compelling point. The Taliban are taking around $100 million a year straight off the top by “taxing” opium farmers directly — i.e., extorting money out of them under threat of violence. (That doesn’t include the money they undoubtedly make as middlemen in the drug trade, carrying it across the Pakistani border to the outside world.)
Against this, milquetoast exhortations from the West about “legitimacy” and “fighting corruption” are naturally going to fall on deaf ears. If we want to get the Afghanis — who produce over 90% of the world’s opium — to stop supplying heroin manufacturers, they are going to have to feel they can come to coalition forces for protection from the Taliban, and they are going to have to be allowed to make a living. If we legitimize their crop — without legitimizing the illegal drugs manufactured from it — we actually come a lot closer to winning the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror” than we do by trying to destroy crops in an already barren and impoverished land.