The government of Afghanistan, under President Hamid Karzai, is fighting for its life against the resurgent Taliban. Victory for the Taliban would be catastrophic, not just for Afghanistan, but for the U.S. as the Taliban remain close allies of al-Qaeda. (As if it weren’t bad enough that the head of Pakistan’s ISI, the Taliban’s main sponsor back in the day, is about to become the head of the Pakistani military.)
Afghanistan now leads the world in poppy growing, and is increasingly involved in heroin processing. Illicit optiate exports account for about one-third of the total Afghani GDP. Poppy-growing is increasingly in the hands of the Taliban, because the Afghani government, under pressure from the U.S., has in turn pressed the Northern Alliance warlords to back off from their heavy involvement in the drug trade.
The U.S. government insists that the Afghani government spray the weed-killer glycophosphate to destroy the poppy crop. Karzai is strongly reluctant; he thinks spraying will give the Taliban an issue against him, because glycophosphate also damages food and animal-feed crops.
If this problem truly involved a tradeoff between drug abuse control and the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, there would be at least some excuse for the U.S. government position, being pushed internally by “drug czar” John Walters and the State Department (our ambassador in Kabul used to be the ambassador in Bogota, which means he’s fully bought in to drug-war ideology) over the objections of the CIA and the Defense Department, backed by the British.
But in fact there’s no reason to think that the level of heroin abuse will go up or down much, or for long, on the basis of what Karzai does.
First, poppy isn’t scarce. If Afghanistan now produces more than 90% of the world’s illicit opium, it’s not because of any unique climate or soil conditions; poppy grows roughly anywhere between 50° N. and 50° S. Illicit poppy grows where weak government allows it to grow. If Afghanistan produces less, we can expect Burma and Colombia to produce more in the short run; in the longer run, the failed states of Africa could easily step up to the plate. And that assumes that the Afghanis themselves can’t make up the shortfall by shifting production methods and areas.
Second, opium is storable, which means that a shortfall in this year’s crop can be made up for by drawing down inventories in farmers’ and processors’ hands.
Third, opium is cheap compared to heroin; the cost of the opium to make a dollar’s worth of heroin delivered to a user in Los Angeles is no more than two cents. (Heroin now sells in the U.S. retail markets for as little as 10 cents a pure milligram, which translates to $100,000 per kilogram; at about $150 per kilo of opium — the current price in Afghanistan — it takes about $1500 worth of black-market opium to produce that kilogram of heroin. Prices in Burma are modestly higher, around $230 per kilo.
Fourth, at least in the U.S. market fentanyl, a synthetic, could compete with heroin if heroin became scarce. Fentanyl is already making inroads.
We can’t solve our heroin problem, or Europe’s, by fighting the poppy crop in Afghanistan. And nothing that happens there will make our heroin problem, or Europe’s, noticeably worse. On the other hand, we could greatly shrink our heroin problem by putting pressure on criminally-active heroin users on probation or parole to abstain, and by increasing the availability of substitution therapies, including methadone, buprenorphine, and LAAM, the long-acting methadone substitute forced off the market by statistically trivial worries about possible heart-valve damage.
The Bush Administration’s utter lack of seriousness about its proclaimed GWOT could have no better symbol than its lunatic insistence on continuing a futile anti-drug policy in Afghanistan.
Probably the right thing for Karzai to do, in terms of his government’s chances against the Taliban, would be to legalize, or at least tolerate, poppy-growing and heroin refining in the areas of Afghanistan it controls, with the goal of enriching its allies and farmers in loyal areas and undercutting the market for opium from Taliban-controlled areas and thus the Taliban’s capacity to benefit its subjects and derive revenue from “taxing” the illicit trade. If that’s right, the U.S. should get out of the way.
Afghanistan, unlike Iraq, isn’t hopeless: yet. First things first.