The Afghans’ bitter fruit

The United States could use opium from Afghanistan for morphine.

For most Americans, Afghanistan is increasingly becoming the forgotten war in Iraq’s terrible shadow. But last week, The New York Times reported that the U.S. government has renewed its efforts to encourage Afghanistan to destroy what is essentially the country’s only cash crop, opium poppies.

Afghanistan produces 93 percent of the world’s illegal opiates, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, but this money provides many of Afghanistan’s poorest with their only source of income. Before the U.S. invasion in 2001, the Taliban regime had, along with many other things, banned the cultivation of opium poppies. Since their ouster, the government of Hamid Karzai has been unable to stop opium’s rapid spread, and much of the country’s estimated 6,000 tons of opium produced annually is believed to end up on the black market. There it can fetch a much higher price than if sold legally, and most analysts believe that the Taliban have had a change of heart on opium in recent years, and now money from the crop funds much of their insurgency against the Karzai government.

There might however, be a better solution than the destruction of this crop. According to the international think-tank the Senlis Council, nearly 80 percent of the world has little to no access to morphine or other medical painkillers. Providing a legal market for Afghans to sell their opium, the council argues, could help increase the availability of these kinds of painkillers to the developing world, if the licensing of the crops and distribution of the medicine could be managed, and this could also lessen the Taliban’s stranglehold in parts of Afghanistan where the government remains weak.

It is not possible for farmers to receive the same price for opium as they do on the black market, but faced with the possibility of losing all these crops, they would likely prefer the carrot to the stick. While this is no doubt a more difficult proposal than simply destroying the crops, it could help break the international heroin market that is devastating northern Europe and is funding the Taliban and other terrorist groups. Addressing the opium issue is essential for Afghanistan’s security and development, and if flamethrowers and pesticides destroy what little livelihood the Afghans can claim, our country might lose the hearts and minds of yet another critical ally in the region.