An interesting article appeared in National Geographic, February 2011, by Robert Draper: “Opium Wars: A key step to securing peace will be to wean Afghan farmers off growing poppies.”
Draper reported that the grim axiom defining today’s Afghanistan, 85 percent of whose citizens are farmers, is that its economy relies on two dueling revenue streams. One flows from Western aid, in the hopes that the country will renounce the Taliban. The other flows from opium trafficking supported by the Taliban, which use the proceeds to fund attacks on Western troops. Only recently has the Afghan government seemed to take stock of the obvious: For the outside world’s largesse to continue, the national economy’s addiction to opium must end. The poppy fields must be destroyed. But just as this devoutly Muslim nation did not become the world’s leading opium supplier overnight, uprooting Afghanistan’s poppy mind-set promises to be a complicated endeavor.
In Badakhshan, chief of police Kintuz appears to be making some headway against poppies. Five years ago the province was Afghanistan’s second-biggest opium producer, after the Taliban-controlled province of Helmand. For a brief period after a Taliban ban on poppies in 2000, Badakhshan even took the lead in poppy cultivation, because the province was controlled by the Northern Alliance militias, rather than the Taliban. When Kintuz started his job in 2007, 9,000 acres were planted with poppies. Two years later fewer than 1,500 were.
Eradication efforts have forced poppy farmers into the margins of the countryside. Their fields are, by design, all but invisible. To find one, you must drive for hours on a crumbled and isolated mountainside road, accompanied by someone who knows the district and will if necessary explain your presence there. You must look far from the roadside, gazing over the rolling terra incognita of northern Afghanistan—studying its monochromatic creases for that rogue burst of color, simultaneously innocent and obscene, that finally screams out what it can only be: a field of poppies.
As I have said many times, the U.S. should buy the crop, burn it in front of all, and then pay them to grow something else.