Should Opium Be Legalized in Afghanistan?

by N. M. GUARIGLIA March 13, 2012
The United States has been in Afghanistan for more than ten years. It has become the longest war in American history. To date, the U.S. has lost more than 1,900 soldiers in Afghanistan—mostly from IEDs; mostly in Helmand and Kandahar provinces—and is spending about $7 billion per month to fund military operations and rebuild the country. How long can a democratic republic, particularly one that has incurred nearly $16 trillion in debt, sustain such a war of attrition?
Nation-building in Afghanistan is a luxury that bleeds our public coffers, diverts from the mission of killing the enemy, and furthermore, makes the U.S. military dependent upon the social mores of a distant people. This dependence is both mutual and counterintuitive. The Afghans are worthy of Western assistance; they do not require our paternalism. Despite our vast differences, Americans share some commonalities with the Afghans. We both reject top-down centralized government—yet, remarkably, our strategy in Afghanistan necessitates overreliance on the central government in Kabul.
To achieve our goals in Afghanistan, we ought to “go minimalist.” We ought to bypass Kabul and defer to the Afghan people more directly. Most importantly, as NATO withdraws in the coming years, we ought to encourage the legalization of the Afghan opium trade.
When I speak with company-grade officers about Afghanistan, they say the same thing. Imagine you’re an Afghan farmer. Your only inheritance is a small plot of land, on which rests a poppy field. It’s your livelihood. When foreign soldiers knock on your door—they’ve already taken away your guns—they eradicate your crop. You have surrendered all of this in front of your family. Would you not feel dishonored?
The U.S. position on Afghan opium has never made much sense. At some point, we must decide whether botany or warfare is worse. Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s opium. Rather than criminalize their largest crop—a fruitless effort that wastes nearly $1 billion every year—why not use our logic and innovation? Rather than alienate the Afghans, why not empower them? Rather than help finance the enemy through the black market, why not use the free market to defeat the enemy?
Opium can become heroin. This much is true. But it can also become morphine and codeine, medicines needed in every hospital in the world. For years, Turkey tried eradicating its opium. Their efforts always failed, so in 1974, with U.S. and UN support, the Turks began licensing poppy cultivation in order to make morphine and other legal drugs. It was a tremendous success. The U.S. still supports this Turkish policy but refuses to replicate it in Afghanistan.
India’s large pharmaceutical industry would jump at such an opportunity. The legalization of Afghanistan’s opium would win over the population, help create a middle class throughout the country, turn potentially harmful drugs into much needed medicines, and destroy the primary source of funding for the Taliban. Put in this light, the decision is almost a no-brainer.
The Afghans are fully capable of nation-building on their own. Should we help facilitate the right deals, Afghanistan could become the Saudi Arabia of morphine. Additionally, upwards of $3 trillion in lithium—a critical industrial metal—was recently discovered, as were mineral riches of iron, copper, cobalt, and gold. International mining companies, including Indian firms, are champing at the bit to get at it. Though Indian involvement in Afghanistan is good in its own right, it might also induce Pakistan towards better behavior.
Prohibition doesn’t work. Criminalizing a natural substance merely provides the criminals an additional outlet for funds. While there are more pressing worries in South Asia, a new Western policy on Afghanistan’s opium—especially as NATO pulls out—would go a long way to ensure the eventual success of a freer society in Afghanistan. The resulting economic dynamism would overwhelm and crush the drug trade, as well as the Taliban. Contributing Editor N.M. Guariglia is an essayist who writes on Islam and Middle Eastern geopolitics.

Contributing Editor N.M. Guariglia is an essayist who writes on Islam and Middle Eastern geopolitics.


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