Afghan opium kills 100,000 people every year worldwide — more than any other drug — and the opiate heroin kills five times as many people in NATO countries each year than the eight-year total of NATO troops killed in Afghan combat, the United Nations said Wednesday.
About 15 million people around the world use heroin, opium or morphine, fueling a $65 billion market for the drug and also fueling terrorism and insurgencies: The Taliban raised $450 million to $600 million over the past four years by “taxing” opium farmers and traffickers, Antonio Maria Costa, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said in a report.
Not all the money is going into the pockets of rebels or drug dealers; some Afghan officials are making money off the trade as well, he said.
I’m amazed that it even needs to be pointed out that Afghan officials are making money off this trade. It accounts for somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of that nation’s GDP. Here in the US, the financial service and insurance industries account for less than 10% of our GDP, yet they’ve been able to use their financial clout to run our government for the past few decades.
In all of the discussions about what to do in Afghanistan, though, this topic hardly ever comes up. It’s central to how the Taliban have funded their resurgence, yet it’s treated as a sideshow – as if it were irrelevant to our ability to succeed there. It’s not. As long as the Taliban continues to profit from the trade, they will never be “defeated” by any Afghan government that is forced to treat the opium industry as a form of corruption that needs to be eradicated.
Thankfully, this CNN report was done by the excellent Christiane Amanpour, so there was actually a dissenting point of view to counter the “bury our heads in the sand and send in more troops” perspective:
The report offered little new in the way of possible solutions, said Ethan Nadelmann, founding executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which promotes alternatives to the war on drugs.
“It’s very good at describing a problem,” he said. “But it truly is devoid of any kind of pragmatic solution, and it essentially suggests that the answer is to keep doing more of what’s failed us in the past.”
So long as there is a global demand for opium, there will be a supply, he said.
“If Afghanistan were suddenly wiped out as a producer of opium — by bad weather or a blight or eradication efforts — other parts of the world would simply emerge as new producers, “creating all sorts of new problems,” he said.
And Afghanistan itself would not be helped either, he said.
“You would see in Afghanistan millions of people probably flocking to the cities unable to make a living and probably turning more to the Taliban than they are now,” he said.
He listed three possible options. The first, global legalization and control, “is not happening, not any time soon,” he said.
The second option is to increase drug treatment for addicts who want it and to provide legal access to the drug, as Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, England, Spain and Canada have done, he said.
“In all of these places, there are small, growing programs of heroin maintenance that allow addicts to obtain pharmaceutical-grade heroin from legal sources rather than from the black market,” he said.
But Nadelmann added that more people died of opiate overdose last year involving pharmaceutical opiates than died from illegal heroin.
A third possibility, he said, would be to view Afghanistan as essentially a red-light zone of global opium production and to think about the solution as a vice-control challenge, “which means acknowledge that Afghanistan is going to continue to be the world’s supplier of illegal opium for the foreseeable future and then focus on manipulating and regulating the market participants, even though it is still illegal.”
He added, “That, I think, is in some respects the de facto strategy, even though it cannot be stated openly, for political reasons.”
Dick Cheney can complain all he wants about Obama dithering, but it was his boss and their administration who were dithering about this problem for seven whole years instead of addressing it head on. The Bush Administration was warned repeatedly that trying to aggressively eradicate the opium trade would backfire and hand the country back over to the Taliban (even the European Parliament urged them to consider licensing the production). He didn’t listen and that’s exactly what happened.
Despite the long and storied history of empires meeting their demise in Afghanistan, I don’t believe that a humiliating defeat there is guaranteed. But even the most sophisticated counter-insurgency effort will fail unless we start to understand how the opium industry functions, why it exists, and the pitfalls of trying to remove it as part of that effort. As Nadelmann pointed out, our current strategy is starting to look more like one of tolerating the production while manipulating the participants. In the end, if we seek out some sort of agreement with the Taliban, that’s essentially what it will be – a deal with those who now control the opium trade. It may look like a defeat to people who’ve been conditioned to equate drug traffickers with terrorists, but it was the war itself that joined those two forces. When the Taliban were in power, they were also trying to eradicate the opium harvests. Making a deal with those who control the opium trade in order to isolate those whose main interest is fighting America is how we win there.