The Senlis Council, an international policy think tank, has developed an alternative plan for dealing with Afghanistan’s record crop of opium poppies. Their Poppy for Medicine Project aims to address the global shortage in medicinal opiates (such as morphine) while also providing a sustainable basis for the Afghan economy. Providing poppies for legal medicinal purposes will offer an income alternative that does not fuel the illicit drugs trade. Romesh Bhattacharji, India’s former narcotics commissioner, has offered his support for the plan, citing the high incidence of cancer in the developing world and the lack of access to pain killers.
This year, Afghan opium exports were worth about $60 billion at street prices in purchasing countries; that is 6.6 times the total gross domestic product of Afghanistan. No wonder coalition forces have been having such a hopeless time trying to eradicate this production. Within Afghanistan, the trade is worth about $3.1 billion, though less than a quarter of that accrues to farmers. Village level schemes of the kind Senlis is proposing could increase that proportion, while decreasing the share that goes to organized crime, smugglers, and insurgent groups.
The idea that NATO troops can win hearts and minds in Afghanistan while simultaneously destroying the opium crop that is the basis for much of the economy has always been foolish. While I was in Oxford, the reality of this situation was privately acknowledged by a number of British military officers. If Afghanistan is to be in any way prosperous or secure by the time western forces eventually withdraw, a bit more intelligent engagement and a bit less dogmatism would be in order.
[Update: 28 August 2007] Here is a similar argument.