« Open Thread - 7 August 2009 | Main | Jim Jones on the Newsies today. »

08 August 2009


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.


It should become the partiotic duty of every American, Canadian, Australian, Japanese, Korean and European to eat a large daily slice of Makowiec or Schlesischer Mohnkuchen. A billion slices a day and Afghanistan would soon become a "developed" country able to afford a large standing army!

Nancy K

I agree with you, buy the crop and then destroy it. I have also throught we should legalize pot and tax it heavily, thus taking some power away from the drug cartels and giving us needed tax money. But I don't think either will happen any time soon.


Buy the opium and then destroy it? Might have the effect of raising prices, and cutting out the middle men may be a problem...
Who could we trust to buy the opium in the first place?


Then we'd get into a bidding war for the harvest with the drug traffickers. And as the price escalated more farmers would get in the game, increasing the supply, then---who knows? Perhaps we'd make capitalists of them all. What should be do with the harvest when we won the bidding, burn it, plow it under, sell it? To whom, the Taliban, the drug traffickers? All farcical of course. It wouldn't stay simple, and like you say, when it gets complex ---.


in another time, plong ago, pirates could be dealt with by naval and marine forces

the geo-political dilemma of our age seems to "failed states"

i don't know if we can ignore the afghanistan "failed state" problem

i think your idea of buying the opium crop would be a game changer

it would upset the power equilibrium in afghanistan and possilby pakistan and could even provide a line of dialog with iran

it could strengthen efforts to help turn the farmers away from opium cultivation

more importantly it would strike a severe blow to the warlords, drug dealers, and government officials that thrive on opium profits

wikipedia has a review of opium production in afghanistan

i have cut, pasted and edited some sailient factoids from the wiki:

Afghanistan ranks number 173 of 177 countries, using a human development index, near or at the bottom of virtually every development indicator including nutrition, infant mortality, life expectancy, and literacy

the high rate of return on investment from opium poppy cultivation has driven an agricultural shift in Afghanistan from growing traditional crops to growing opium poppy

opium cultivation, at the present scale, is not traditional

Agriculture is a way of life for 70 percent of Afghans and is the country's primary source of income

Afghanistan used to produce enough food to feed its people as well as supply a surplus for export

As the Afghan government began to lose control of provinces during the Soviet invasion of 1979-80, warlords flourished and with it opium production as regional commanders searched for ways to generate money to purchase weapons

In the seven years (1994-2000) prior to a Taliban opium ban, the Afghan farmers' share of gross income from opium was divided among 200,000 families

In July 2000, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar declared that growing poppies was un-Islamic, resulting in one of the world's most successful anti-drug campaigns

opium poppy cultivation was reduced by 91%

the ban was so effective that Helmand Province, which had accounted for more than half, recorded no poppy cultivation during the 2001 season

Opium production has been a significant business in Afghanistan, especially since the downfall of the Taliban in 2001

more opium poppy cultivation in each of the past growing seasons, than in any one year during Taliban rule

more land is now used for opium in Afghanistan, than for coca cultivation in Latin America

In 2007, 93% of the opiates on the world market originated in Afghanistan

export value of about $4 billion, with a quarter being earned by opium farmers and the rest going to district officials, insurgents, warlords and drug traffickers

some assert that opium production is protected by the government of Hamid Karzai as well as by the Taliban, as all parties to political conflict in Afghanistan as well as criminals benefit from opium production

record 2.9 million Afghanis from 28 of 34 provinces are involved in opium cultivation in some way, nearly 10 percent of the population

less than 20 percent of the $3 billion in opium profits actually goes to impoverished farmers

80 percent goes into the pockets of Afghan's opium traffickers and kingpins and their political connections

Even heftier profits are generated outside of Afghanistan by international drug traffickers and dealers

60 percent of Afghanistan's opium is trafficked across Iran's border (much of it in transit to Europe).

Iran has the world's highest per capita number of opium addicts

Iran's "primary approach to the narcotics threat [as] interdiction.

Iran shares a 936 kilometer border with Afghanistan and a 909 kilometer border with Pakistan

The Iranian government has set up static defenses along this border. This includes concrete dams, berms, trenches, and minefields


Opium represents somewhere around 40-60% of Afghanistan's economy. That means that if we were to undertake something like this - even in a more cost-effective way like the Colonel proposes - we would be directly purchasing at least half of a country's gross national product.

This only makes sense if we resell it to heroin addicts. Personally, I think an intellectual case could be made for that on harm reduction grounds, but its obviously a non starter.

The point is that, like other things regarding current AF-PAK policy, if we take things to their logical conclusions it leads to conclusions a lot of people will find tremendously uncomfortable.


Just buy their Opium crop at 10% 'above' what the traffickers are paying them. The traffickers can't stand competition, as it drives them out of the business. Why do you think there are constant 'wars' between traffickers. Buy their Opium in the morning, and put it in a burn pile that afternoon. Even that is 'cheap' when one considers the costs of the 'war on drugs' price tag. Lessening the boondoggle makes sense.

William R. Cumming

Actually the National Defense Stockpile contains balls of raw opium stockpiled for morphine production to assist in pain killing the wounded after Soviet execution of its SIOP on the US. Last I heard the largest such stockpile on Earth. Stored in the form of round balls.

Patrick Lang


you are not thinking assymetrically.

"in India, in 2000, the price for licit opium was US$13–29 per kilo, but for illicit US$155–206." WIKI on "Afghanistan opium production."

What do Afghan farmers get now for the poppy juice or whatever it is that they sell to the traffickers?

50% of Afghanistan's GDP? So what! What are we going to be spending there over the next X number of years. pl


Kandahar peaches are among the best in the world, know throughout the Islamic world as worth paying a premium. So to encourage diversification, why not simple pay opium prices for the peach crop and other crops as an incentive. I know it won't make the people in South Carolina and Georgia happy, but worth a try. If you encourage more production of opium, you will simply drive up the price paid by the drug dealers who have a monopoly. That is how software companies have over 50% margins. The more choices Afghan farmers have, the better results we will get. Try dealing with Cisco, Microsoft or Oracle about licensing fees compared to Intels battle with AMD...IMHO


The price of opiate-based painkillers (eg morphine) is currently high enough that in poor countries there are many medical uses than can't be afforded. If we were to buy the crop, convert it to morphine, and sell it on the market, we'd push the price down (a good thing) and get some of our costs back. As far as cost goes, I think the current cost of the "mission" already exceeds the GDP of Afghanistan.

On a more general front, I can't resist quoting from an interview with Rory Stewart (who has very direct knowledge of both Afghanistan and Iraq) on advising Washington. He seems to be another member of the Axis of Common Sense:

“It’s like they’re coming in and saying to you, ‘I’m going to drive my car off a cliff. Should I or should I not wear a seatbelt?’ And you say, ‘I don’t think you should drive your car off the cliff.’ And they say, ‘No, no, that bit’s already been decided – the question is whether to wear a seatbelt.’ And you say, ‘Well, you might as well wear a seatbelt.’ And then they say, ‘We’ve consulted with policy expert Rory Stewart and he says ...’”

(google: rory stewart financial times for the full interview, though the rest is about other things).

Duncan Kinder

The problem, Col., comes not from any lack of logic or information on your part but rather from the viewpoint expressed by a friend of mine with whom I was having dinner a month ago.

Discussing the Mexican drug cartels, I said unless we legalize narcotics, the problems in Mexico will spill over.

He said that that was fine, but people raising their children needed to keep narcotics illegal so they could keep them, too, from using drugs.

(You cannot expect this guy to be fully logical. He is a steel industry executive who sternly demands that we follow the free enterprise system when he is not demanding government support for the steel industry. )

He was quite set in his opinion and could make no inroads with him - at least until I finally pointed out that Mexican gangs already are in Columbus and therefore almost certainly using the local interstate.

That ended our conversation.

So, therefore, Col., I do not think your argument will work until or unless such time as it appears likely the Taliban may be cruising I-70.

It's all about the children, you see.

F B Ali

Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, and obviously someone who has some expertise in the area, discussed in a 2007 article the various options available to the US with regard to the opium produced in Afghanistan:

“One, we can keep doing what we're doing, which is not accomplishing anybody's objectives. Two, we could embark on an aggressive aerial eradication campaign, which would be a humanitarian disaster and push people into the hands of the Taliban......Three, there is outright legalization, but that isn't on anybody's political horizon....Four, there is the notion of just buying up the opium. That might work for a year or so, but it would almost inevitably become a sort of price support system with the country producing twice as much the following year. There's no reason why farmers wouldn't sell some to us and some to the underground; it would only inject another buyer into the market....Finally,.. there is the Senlis Council proposal to license opium production for the licit medicinal market... (It) is an interesting idea, but there are a lot of issues with it, including the question of whether there really is a global shortage of opiate pain medications......(There is another option)..Let's just accept opium as a global commodity and let's think of Afghanistan as the global equivalent of a local red light district”.

The article is quoted in: http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/500/afghanistan_opium_production_record

Dave of Maryland

It is hard to justify money spent abroad when there is so much suffering at home.


it's not such a silly idea when you consider the global shortage of morphine at the moment ...


Larry Kart

I like the "just buy it" plan. There might be bizarre unintended consequences, but probably they'd be far less bizarre than an unworkable Rube Goldberg-like, crop-substitution program. And what do we do with what we'd buy? Haven't worked out the details myself, but I sense that there'd be some way to combine it with "Cash for Clunkers."


Buy the opium at the farmer’s gate? My, my, that would mean we would actually cut out the warlords and traffickers and thus actually remove the opium from the market. Imagine all the drug dealer’s in Europe and the US who would have no product to push? Why then the drug related crime would go down dramatically, as would the need for all those cops and prisons. Eventually we would have to fire a bunch of cops and close a bunch of prisons. I can’t believe you are against cops and prisons. BTW I believe the only ones to successfully curtail opium production in Afghanistan were the Taliban. http://news.pacificnews.org/news/view_article.html?article_id=d7cdb69dd4561d0dbbcf8c56569a940c

Twit, what if opium is 40-60% of Afghanistan's economy? I recall my father relating a story about a briefing to the JCS on Vietnam in 64-65 that stated that North Vietnam was close to 80-90% of GDP on the war. Some bright young colonel pointed out that the 10% left over was more than had been spent on the people of the north in its entire history. That was one colonel the sergeant major never saw again. Cut out the middleman, the farmers owe no allegiance to those who’ve been ripping them off for generations.


A few points -- organics are better than synthetics, whether butter, cotton, coca or opium. Full-bore legalization will raise revenues, cut the costs of policing & incarcerating those in the supply/use chain & generally make for better karma.
Won't ever happen, of course, since the prohibitionists (dope lords, cops, prison moguls, etc.) as well as the $$ launderers (AKA banks) have too much to lose. Still, it's the right thing to do (not that that was ever reason enough for the American people).


Rather than buying the Opium, wouldn't it make more sense to overpay for some more legitimate other crop?

The presumption is that the Farmer doesn't care what he grows, may even be troubled by growing opium, but if we buy his crop of Opium at a mark up from what he is being paid by the drug lords, he has a guaranteed market and every farmer who is NOT growing opium will be tomorrow.

Better to pay 2-3 times the market rate for Dates, or lemons or whatever they can grow there. In time, the price can be reeled in relative to the market, but at the Farms gate the price would be so low we might even break even.(Maybe subsidize pot, and then sell it here through the ABC/State Stores, drive the Mexican cartels outs of business in a day, and balance the budget in one feel swoop)


Col Lang,

I don't have a number, but I believe Afghan poppy farmers get paid a comparative amount as diamond miners in Sierra Leone.

To clarify my poor attempt at reducto ad absurdum, I think the idea to buy up opium is a good one, and if we were to do this, buying it directly from the farmers would be the most cost-effective way to do it. The benefits of this could be huge: On the development side, like you said, it would lessen the economic stranglehold warlords et al have on 'regular' Afghans, which in theory could provide an opening for eventually replacing opium crops with pomegranates or something else. It would also help separate the true believers in the Taliban from the rent-a-militants, and enable us to proceed from there.

But, taking this modest proposal to its logical conclusions, begs at least two questions and brings us back to where we started:

1. Can we follow through? Yes. Although one issue is that the farmers usually do not sell to the traffickers. To simplfy, as I understand it the peasants sell to whatever local chieftain controls their land and holds their debts, and then this chieftain - usually with the help of the friendly local Afghan government official or Taliban leader - sells it to the traffickers. So, if we want to buy from the farmers, we need to replace, undermine, or pay off everyone who would be negatively impacted, which would include a lot of our current Afghan 'friends.' Cue asymmetric warriors.

2. But is it worth following through? For example, we would still have to at least (a) identify most or all of the poppy farmers, (b) account for what they grow to ensure they are not holding back, (c) deal with or find and install replacements for all the power players whose major source of personal income we just undercut, and (d) provide security for the farmers who will inevitably be forced by the traffickers' allies to sell some to us and most to them, or be killed. i.e. It matters if we are committing to buying outright 50% of the country’s GDP for the foreseeable future because doing so will require accompanying social/economic/political restructuring, unless we just want to kick the can down the road.

In other words, even though it sounds good in the short term, wouldn’t all this just entail an almost full-out COIN/nation building level of effort?

And, if we want to use opium to address at least the AF of ‘AF-PAK’ wouldn’t it more cost effective to just decriminalize heroin and work on getting some amoral yet tax-paying corporations in to control the trade and sell it to licensed and regulated dealers who will provide it to addicts as part of government controlled rehab programs?

Babak Makkinejad


Is it not the case that the opium economy is the most modern sector of Afghan economy?

And the money that it brings in is from more affluent consumers in Europe and North America?

Yes, it feeds the warlords and fuels corruption but it is not the cause of those ills.

In fact, those Afghans involved in the opium trade have been gaining valuable experience and know-how in marketing, international logistics, and modern farming techniques.

Seems to me, this sector of the Afghan society at least has joined the market economy and thus most likely to be able to enter into a semblance of “modernity” – over time.

Why should the United States, in the middle of this war - however misguided its strategic objectives might be - take on the drug sector?

The only people who are loudly complaining about the opium production in Afghanistan are the Iranians and they have been living with that headache for decades.

If I were a US leader, I would leave the opium production in Afghanistan alone.

Patrick Lang


I agree with Babak. we should ignore the Afghan opium trade if we can. After all, I am not really in favor of trying to create Afghanistan. Let the Afghans create their own country if they want one. "Nation State?" What a laugh.

McChrystal will be de-flavorised in Afghanistan as will Gates if he does not escape before the eventual debacle. COIN and its disciples will disappear into the mists. I say again. It only makes sense if you own the place.

Asymmetric warriors? God bless 'em. pl


Col. and Babak, last time we abandoned Afghanistan things didn't go to well for us.

IMHO, there is no military option resulting in victory, but we can attempt to minimize our defeat.

Nation building should be left to the U.N. but Iraq and Afghanistan will our 51st and 52nd states for a long, time time.

I live in Miami, Haiti's problems affect us more than you can imagine.

We can run, but we can not hide.

Patrick Lang


"Abandoned?" What are they, children? You are not paying attention. I want to stay in Afghanistan with just enough force to enable disruptive operations against AQ, operations using Afghans against them as the main muscle.

What I sm not in favor of is building the new Afghanistan. pl


It would be very tough to buy it at the "farm gate".

Opium harvesting takes a lot of effort. Large groups of migrant farm workers help with the harvest (which only lasts for a six week season or so).

The farmer has to pay off the workers as they finish their harvest.

Creating an department of agriculture with many farm "agents" who could inspect and purchase the crop as the harvesters are walking out the gate would be an immense undertaking.

The comments to this entry are closed.

My Photo

February 2021

Sun Mon Tue Wed Thu Fri Sat
  1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
Blog powered by Typepad