Fighting Words

Let the Afghan Poppies Bloom

How the drug war is undermining the war on terrorism.

Why should it be that the intervention in Afghanistan has apparently gone so much better than anyone would have predicted, while the intervention in Iraq has proved to be so much more arduous? There are a number of thinkable answers to this question. Afghanistan had already had the experience of theocracy and civil war, to the point where its citizenry was sickened and inured. The Taliban had only been in power for a fairly short time, while the Iraqi Baath Party had had more than three decades in which to debauch the country’s treasury and accustom its citizens to fearful obedience. Most of Afghanistan’s neighbors generally want the Karzai government to succeed, or at least to see some version of stability, while some of Iraq’s neighbors short-sightedly believe that they might benefit from a discrediting of the Allawi government in Baghdad.

To these contrasting hypotheses one might add another variable, this time on the other side of the ledger. Coalition forces in Iraq do not come roaring into towns and villages to tell the local people to stop producing or consuming oil products. Nor do they roam the country blowing up oil-wells or drills. Picture how the situation in Iraq might be different if they did. Now picture something that you do not have to imagine—a determined effort by the liberators of Afghanistan to force the country back into warlordism and anarchy. Every day, soldiers acting in our name are burning or spraying Afghanistan’s only viable crop.

Like many stories in the mainstream media, this dramatic piece of news can appear on the front page only if it is printed upside down. Thus we learned from the New York Times of Dec. 11, in a front-page article bylined by Eric Schmitt, that a secret “assessment” by Lt. Gen. David Barno, the senior American officer in the country, has concluded that poppy cultivation is the main threat to the creation of a decent society, and the main avenue by which former Taliban and al-Qaida forces can hope to return from their crushing defeat.

Any attentive reading of the report, however, shows that it is the campaign against poppy cultivation that constitutes the threat. This point was underlined, perhaps coincidentally, by an op-ed essay in the same edition of the Times, written by Afghanistan’s tireless and talented finance minister, Ashraf Ghani. “Today,” he wrote, “many Afghans believe that it is not drugs, but an ill-conceived war on drugs that threatens their economy and nascent democracy” (my italics). Ghani went on to point out that a third of Afghanistan’s GDP depends on the crop and that “destroying that trade without offering our farmers a genuine alternative livelihood has the potential to undo the embryonic economic gains of the past three years.” As he further emphasized, these highly undesirable consequences arise from the control of the trade by a “mafia” with links to Islamic nihilism.

Ghani’s meticulous analysis promptly broke down with a non-sequitur: a call for more money and force to be spent in combating a “mafia” that, as he has already admitted, commands a decisive part of the rural economy. Nowhere is it even asked what would happen if the trade was legalized and taxed: a measure that would immediately remove it from mafia control and immediately enrich a vast number of Afghan cultivators who currently exist on the margin of survival.

Reporting from Afghanistan a few months ago (Vanity Fair, November 2004) I pointed out a few obvious facts. Twenty and more years ago, the country’s main export was grapes and raisins. It was a vineyard culture. But many if not most of those vines have been dried up or cut down, or even uprooted and burned for firewood, in the course of the hideous depredations of the past decades. An Afghan who was optimistic enough to plant a vine today could expect to wait five years before seeing any return for it, whereas a quick planting of poppies will see pods flourishing in six months. What would you do, if your family or your village were on a knife-edge? The American officers I met, tasked with repressing this cultivation, were to a man convinced that they were wasting their time and abusing the welcome they had at first received in the countryside. It doesn’t take much intelligence to understand the history of Prohibition, or to know that American consumer demand is strong enough to overcome any attempt to inhibit supply. In any case, we know this already from dire experience in Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico.

There is the further point that opium is good for us. Painkillers and anesthetics have to come from somewhere, and we have an arrangement with Turkey to grow and refine the stuff that we need. Why Turkey, an already over-indulged client state? Isn’t it time to give the struggling Afghans a share of the business? We could simultaneously ensure a boost for Afghan agriculture, remove an essential commodity from terrorist and warlord control, and guarantee a steady supply of analgesics that would be free of impurities or additives.

In order to comprehend this point, there is no need to know much about Afghanistan. Do you know anyone who really believes in the “war on drugs” as it is supposedly waged in the United States? It is widely understood to be the main index of pointless and costly and unjust incarceration, a huge source of corruption in police departments, and a cause of crime in its own right as well as a source of tainted and “cut” narcotics. And that is before you even consider absurdities and cruelties like the denial of medical marijuana, or the diversion of personnel and resources from the war against more threatening gangsters. Our entire state policy, at home and abroad, is devoted not to stopping a trade that actually grows every year, but rather to ensuring that all its profitable means of production, distribution, and exchange remain the fiefdom of criminal elements. We consciously deny ourselves access to properly refined and labeled products and to the vast revenue that could accrue to the Treasury instead of to the mobsters here and overseas.

This demented legacy of the Nixon administration will have to be abandoned sooner or later, and I believe that the threatened sacrifice of Afghanistan to the dogma may be the “tipping point.” There are numerous policy planners, prison officials, policemen, elected politicians, and scientific specialists, on the intelligent Right as well as the intelligent Left, who have concluded that decriminalization is an urgent necessity. It’s hard to think of any other single reform that could make more difference in more areas. The idea offers a way out of the current sterile red state/blue state dichotomy. It ought to be the next big thing.