Let Afghanistan's Heroin Be?

By Matthew Harwood

In the August issue of Security Management, Robert Elliot reported how Afghanistan has become the world's first narco-state.

Afghan farmers cultivated more than 6,000 tonnes (each tonne is 1,000 kilograms) of poppies in 2006, nearly 50 percent more than the previous year, producing an overhang of opium worth about $1 billion, according to UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa. The excess has not reached the market and depressed opium prices, meaning it is being held for future sales, he said. The UNODC notes that prices have been "conspicuously stable" even with the output jump.

Currently Afghanistan furnishes more than 90 percent of the world's heroin. Afghan narcotics are a $2.6-billion-a-year industry and make up about one-third of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

He also found that trying to eradicate Afghanistan's poppy plants would be foolhardy because senior government officials are implicated in the trade and it has become a cornerstone of the economy.

Now the country is dependent on opium as the main source of employment, foreign exchange, and tax revenue. "If you flew over Afghanistan and defoliated the crop right now, it would be a disaster. The government would fall, society would reel, and the Taliban would reemerge to take power. Nobody can actually do much about it; it's too dominant," says [Alfred] McCoy [a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of The Politics of Heroin].

And this month's Foreign Policy cover story (subscription only) bears out Security Management's reporting. Echoing Elliot, Ethan Nadelmann, founder and director of the Drug Policy Alliance, asks who would benefit from the destruction of the Afghan poppy crop. His answer:

Only the Taliban, warlords, and other black-market entrepeneurs whose stockpiles of opium would skyrocket in value.

Would would be hurt most? Afghan farmers and us. Hundreds of thousands of Afghan farmers would be pushed into the cities, "ill-prepared to find work," which would only worsen security problems in Afghanistan's cities. And because eradication programs would only increase the value of heroin as scarcity ensued short-term, Nadelmann argues, "Higher heroin prices typically translate into higher crime rates by addicts." And where are the most addicts located? In the West of course.

So what's Edelmann's solution? Let Afghan heroin be.

Some recommend buying up all the opium in Afghanistan, which would cost a lot less than is now being spent trying to eradicate it. But, given that farmers somewhere will produce opium so long as the demand for heroin persists, maybe the world is better off, all things considered, with 90 percent of it coming from just one country.

Somehow, I feel, Edelmann's hands off approach will fall on deaf ears.


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