Another try at reducing the Afghan poppy trade

Another try at reducing the Afghan poppy trade

Afghan farmers holding up poppy pods in a field of poppy flowers. Photo: Mercy Corps
Afghan farmers holding up poppy pods in a field of poppy flowers. Photo: Mercy Corps

The United States is dropping the stick and picking up the carrot in combating the Afghan poppy trade. The new anti-drug policy ends the effort to eradicate poppy fields and will now focus on giving farmers financial and technical aid to help them replant their poppy fields with wheat and other food crops, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Past efforts to reduce the number of poppies, the basis for opium and heroin production, used a mix of incentives, but consisted primarily of eradication programs, like the cutting and burning of poppy plants. Richard Holbrooke, the senior American official for Afghanistan policy, tells the Wall Street Journal. "All we did was alienate poppy farmers," he said. "We were driving people into the hands of the Taliban."

While eradication campaigns may have made life tough for farmers, they did not materially impact the drug trade. Over the past decade, Afghanistan's share of global poppy production has grown from about a tenth to over 90 percent of the world total, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal.

Holbrooke bluntly informed the New York Times that "[t]he Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure". The new policy of crop substitution, while laudable, faces many of the same challenges that derailed the earlier plans.

Switching from poppies to other crops isn't a simple task. One of the reasons that poppy production is so profitable is that drug traffickers pick up the poppies at the farms. If they grow a food crop, farmers must build storage buildings and get the crops to often distant markets. While bearing these higher costs, they must also contend with prices both lower and less predictable than poppy prices. Even if they can subsist on the less profitable food crops, they have to deal with threats of violence from the Taliban, which opposes any switch to non-poppy crops.

What's more, the Afghan political elite has a vested interest in the poppy crop. The United States intelligence community estimates that only $70 million out of $3 billion dollars of drug receipts go to the Taliban, according to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In a Committee report, officials related that many of the recipients are U.S. allies and members of the government.

"These warlords later traded on their stature as U.S. allies to take senior positions in the new Afghan government, laying the groundwork for the corrupt nexus between drugs and authority that pervades the power structure today."

Most business owners wouldn't invest in a high-risk product with low returns. So it's understandable that Afghani farmers aren't making the switch from poppies to wheat in droves. There are likely to be some parts of the country with sufficient security and strong enough markets for the program to succeed, as Ganesh Sitaraman, a lawyer for the Counterinsurgency Training Center Afghanistan, notes in a New York Times op-ed.

The U.S. is to be applauded for switching from a destructive, ineffective policy to a constructive, potentially effective policy. This new policy will only be part of a larger effort, that will have to include greater security for farmers, to reduce the scale of the Afghan poppy crop.

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