Mike O’Hare (see below) may be right about buying the Afghan opium crop, but I doubt it. It’s been tried before in various places, with uniform lack of success. (Yes, we eventually dried up the Turkish illicit opium crop, but without lasting benefit in terms of reducing the world’s heroin supply.)
Opium-growing land isn’t scarce. If we buy out one group of peasants, another group will enter the trade. (Or the people we buy from will plant two crops, one for us and one for the traffickers.)
Anyway, if Afghanistan doesn’t grow poppy, someplace else will. The price of opium is a trivial fraction of the price of heroin on the street. As long as there are refiners, exporters, dealers and (most of all) users of heroin, there will always be enough opium to supply them.
If Afghanistan were an independent country with a smart government, it would figure out that:
(1) Afghanistan doesn’t have a heroin consumption problem.
(2) Afghanistan does have an insurgency-and-crime problem, fueled in part by opium-dealing money.
(3) Exporting heroin creates problems for Afghanistan only because it’s illegal.
(4) If European governments want to protect Europeans, who now buy most of the heroin made from Afghani poppies, from their bad habits, they need to fix their domestic drug policies. Because methadone, LAAM, and buprenorphine are highly effective treatments for heroin addiction, expanding treatment capacity can make a big difference. (That’s much less true for the stimulants, for which there is no effective substitution therapy.)
(5) Therefore Afghanistan should repeal its laws against opium-growing and heroin manufacturing and exporting.
However, for these purposes Afghanistan isn’t independent, and the U.S. and European governments that prop up the Karzai regime are far too caught up in drug-war ideology to allow their client so much slack, even though our stakes in defeating the Taliban are hugely greater than our stakes in reducing Afghani poppy production.
So Karzai, with our support, ought to go for a second-best solution. Together we should identify opium-growing and heroin-trafficking regions and organizations tied to the Taliban, and go after them, leaving the other drug dealers (including the leadership of the Northern Alliance) untouched. The goal would be to create such competitive disadvantage for the Taliban-linked dealers as to make them uncompetitive in the market.
Such a policy could never be openly embraced; again, the political investment in the drug war is too great. But it could be pursued as an open secret, with appropriate tough-on-drugs rhetoric plus some references to the importance of concentrating rather than dispersing enforcement attention.
That’s not a wonderful result: it continues to strengthen the Northern Alliance as against Karzai, where legalization could fund the central government and de-fund the warlords. But it’s clearly the least bad politically feasible response to the current situation.