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03 October 2010


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As set out in this article, the estimated cost to kill each Taliban is as high as $100 million, with a conservative estimate being $50 million.


Michael Moore

Liberal blogger Ian Welsh had a similar post years ago, although he proposed buying the opium crop from the Afghani farmers and processing it into opiate-based medicines.

Eric Dönges

While Mr. Cook's proposal sounds reasonable (to me at least), I'm afraid it will run into a fatal flaw - just because the "wars" on terror and drugs are ruinous for the world economy as a whole does not mean that they are not highly profitable for a number of influential people, who are thus quite happy with the status quo and will vigorously reject any policy that will cost them their gravy train.


Sweet reason!

Alas, the combination of vested interests in the Law enforcement industry, the Prison Industry, the Judiciary, the Churches(treatment and education branch), the Churches(suffering for sins branch), the Social work industry, the illegal drug importation and distribution industry, will prevent such a sensible idea being pursued. The applicable phrases the politicians will spout on command are: "Zero tolerance", "Tough on drugs" and of course "Sending the wrong signal".

Such a course, if it were to happen, would need to be paired with the legalisation of heroin as a drug and the treatment of addiction to it as a purely medical matter. Heroin, by the way, is a magnificent pain killer for use by terminal cancer patients where addiction is the least of their problems. It's much better than morphine, which is one reason that our friends at Purdue Pharma will no doubt fund a grass roots campaign against its use.

All of us share the cost of the heroin trade. My latest contribution being the purchase of security lighting after an attempted break in by addicts who decided to use the Church car park next door as a meeting place for a while.


We just need to determine the cost of 61 senators and 219 members of the house and add that in.

FB Ali

Beautifully logical. Theoretically impeccable. But, unfortunately, totally impractical.

The argument is based on economics, which involves both supply and demand. If you just cut out this source of supply while the strong demand remains intact, all you’ll do is create other sources of supply to meet this demand.

Use our troops to protect farmers and also protect them against the uncertainty of weather conditions during the decade of adjustment to new crops and/or new occupations.” As has been said, other things govern life besides economics (aka money). Things like emotion, pride, tribalism, xenophobia. The US would need three or four times the number of troops it now has in Afghanistan to do that, and the expected cost in additional casualties and dollars would quickly rule this option out.

However, there is an interesting offshoot to this lovely flight of fancy. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan they did root out and end poppy cultivation throughout the country. If the US were to promise them $4 billion a year as part of a negotiated settlement to bring them back into government, they’d gladly agree to stamp out poppy production again (and probably also throw in an al-Qaeda ban into the pot as a sweetener).

Unfortunately, my proposal is as unlikely to be accepted as Mr Cook’s. There are too many powerful interests in the US for whom the continuation of the war is hugely gainful (whether in money or in service of their goals) quite irrespective of the large “negative social cost” that Mr Cook refers to.


With the greatest respect Gen. Ali, There is a little more to the "Supply and Demand" argument.

When supply of heroin exceeds demand, prices fall. Drug dealers, creative marketers as they are, then produce "starter kits" which they push to risk taking kids all over the world, as a useful tactic for boosting demand.

One can take a decision to "taper off" production to avoid the price shock you correctly anticipate if the trade stopped tomorrow.

There would also be a need to increase production of legal heroin since without legalisng addiction and treating it as a medical condition, you are perfectly right - cultivation would be increased in the Golden triangle in Burma, and perhaps elsewhere.

Then of course there is the question of product substitution with amphetamines, etc.

However there are too many vested interests for common sense to prevail, so our discussion is academic.


how about permanent tactical defeat and temporary strategic losses.

John Howley

I'm all in favor of helping Afghan farmers, whether by buying all the opium they produce or alternate crops.

However, discussions like this assume that Afghan farmers are like Iowa farmers in that they have clear title to the plots they farmer.

The problem of land tenure in Afghanistan (or Pakistan for that matter) is rarely mentioned however nothing is more important to the farmer himself.

The "disputes" that the Taliban is famous for settling quickly are fairly (which government courts apparently do not) are mostly to do with land.

My guess is that our gang in Kabul is not too enthusiastic about land reform.


FB Ali's comment that other sources of supply would arise is true but it is much less damaging to us if the suppliers are choosing to accumulate wealth rather than fund suicide attackers.


IMO, the only way this would realistically work would be both to (as Gen Ali says) pay the Taliban to ban the supply side, AND (as walrus says) decriminalize the demand side.

For Western forces to guarantee security to poppy farmers would equate in practice to essentially more of the same COINista approach as we have now. And to stop Afghan opium production without decriminalization on our end would both lose any social cost savings and just move the production and the problems somewhere else. Complex problems require holistic solutions.

(PS: thanks Colonel - this is one issue about which I've become much wiser thanks to SST)


Plus, I'm sure the Iranians would be willing to give up a few things for a policy that helped them reduce their ballooning heroin addiction rate (http://www.reuters.com/article/idUSTRE5AE0Z020091115)

Something else for the Congress of the Middle East...


The way to help afghan farmers is to help them sell more opium at a better price (if helping afghan farmers is our sole goal). They get even less of the real value of "legitimate" agricultural commodities.

The money we pay to Taliban proxies for protection is greater than the amount some local taliban get from taxing opium. That is, "we" are funding the people shooting at US troops in many cases.

Voracious market demand for opium would see production shift to other areas if afghanistan stopped being a major producer. Mexican brown heroin (those guys know from the distribution) would even become internationally competitive again -- likely having an outsized impact on the US market (Afghan production effects global price, of course, but doesn't have ready access to the US market). For the European market, i suspect elsewhere in the stans, maybe even burma again, would pick up the slack.


It's just disgusting, someone somewhere is ingesting something and enjoying it. Repugnant to the max. And dancing too, slow dancing and ... disgusting.


hmmm, sounds like a sane way to solve a couple of problems

"...The Marines are exploring solar-powered water purification systems and looking into the possibility of building a small-scale, truck-based biofuel plant that could transform local crops — like illegal poppies — into fuel...."


different clue

If the goal is to dry up the poppy-money revenue stream from reaching the Taliban and any terrorists the poppy-money might also be funding, then this could be a good idea. If the goal is to dry up this particular source of poppy-money, then what difference does it make that other poppy growing areas will increase production to fill the demand? Those other areas will not fund the Taliban and their fellow-traveling jihadistas.

Of course, if we tried paying the Afghans a full opium price to not grow opium anymore, the Taliban would know what is happening. They would probably terrorise and intimidate the Afghans into rejecting the don't-grow-opium payments and terrorise and intimidate them into continuing to grow opium. If so, then what? Do we stay and keep fighting the Taliban to convince the Afghans it is safe to take the don't-grow-opium payments?

Far better to re-legalise
opium growing as it was before laws were passed against it. The price would crash to bulk-commodity levels and everybody's opium revenue streams would shrink to a trickle all around the world. The arguments which would be raised against opium relegalization are the same arguments which were raised against alcohol re-legalization during Prohibition. Eventually the costs of Prohibition became so obviously unbearable that those arguments lost force.

We would have a new set of wider-spread addiction problems just as we got with post-Prohibition alcohol; but perhaps we could manage them better than we are managing the problems caused by the artificially high price and profits from the artificial illegalization of opium/opiates today. Politically consequential piles of money reaching the Taliban, the MexiCartels, etc.; is one of those costs.

The opening of these threads to the discussion of
sensible alternatives to the War On Drugs is a first step to the wider spread and serious consideration of these sensible alternatives by growing numbers of literate people; some of whom may have real influence on the course of discussion and even policy.

Walton Cook

The author responds:

Whether in science, engineering or person to person problem solving, we address problems one at a time. We don't worry that solving a difficult problem may be only one part of the problem equation. Yes, people who can't get heroin or cocaine may switch to meth, but that is a different problem.

So, if Afghans produce 92% of the world supply of heroin, that percentage would have to move elsewhere to meet the same demand. And then, where is elsewhere? Colombia for example, produces 5-6% now. Will they pick up another 92%?

Not likely with US (Plan Colombia) support already there against drugs, and aerial spraying already in place, and the new government set against FARC and AUC. So, moving 92% of the production of anything to another place is very difficult, even when there is demand.

There is diminished satisfaction of demand when supply is highly restricted. Major narcotics are highly damaging to humans, and addictive. Because of that, they are illicit, and legalizing them would be both harmful, cowardly and lacking in virtue. We don't knowingly harm others and then pretend there is no ethical question being violated. I could go on, but using supply and demand is not a good argument, as lack of supply trumps any demand consideration.

Walton Cook

different clue

First of all, I thank Walton Cook for his response to us all. Not all authors would even respond to commenters.

I will repeat my opinion that this idea could be worth a try. The question does still remain as to whether the Taliban would peaceably permit it. If they decided to fight it, would we be prepared to fight the Taliban as long and hard to redirect Afghan farming as the Taliban would be prepared to fight to keep their intimidated producers producing?

I disagree that we should solve problems one by one without regard to anticipating and pre-countering downstream problems. I realize we often do, but that doesn't mean we should. The "one problem at a time" approach has been shown harmful when applied to drone-missiling the Pakistan-border sanctuaries. That has bought us visibly worsened relations with Pakistan and its resulting undermining of our principle supply route.

Much of the social costs of opiates cited by Alton Cook are not caused by the opiates themselves. They are caused by the laws against opiates and the resultant high prices which foster and feed big rich powerful opiate mafias and which drive poor users to steal the money to buy the opiates which the War On Drugs certainly has not prevented them from getting addicted to. Re-legalizing or at least de-criminalizing would eliminate all the costs engineered into existence by
outlawing opiates to begin with; leaving us to deal with the actual costs imposed by the drugs themselves. Those could then be managed by various harm-reduction and/or medical management strategies such as addict-registration which was used for a time in Great Britain, I believe.

Buying all the Afghan opium right off the market won't restrict supply in the long run or even the medium run. I believe that the difficulty of replacing all that production from just Colombia is a mis-cited example since Colombia was never a principle poppy area to begin with. There are several other principle poppy areas such as Mexico and the Golden Triangle which are ready to step into any breach and can do so within 2 or 3 years. But in my earlier comment I accepted that outcome if the narrower goal was to keep opium money away from the jihadistas, since only Afghan opium money would go to the jihadistas.

F B Ali, I remember reading (I don't know where), that the only reason the Taliban banned opium growing under their rule was because they already had their own stockpiles of opium and they wanted to make their own already-possessed opium more valuable by preventing any new Afghan opium from being grown for a while. I can't remember where I read that.

Finally, the invocation of courage and virtue in the making of substance-use policy risks being dismissed as insincere if courage and virtue are invoked against some substances and not others.

Alcohol as a chemical clearly killed thousands of people each year through direct physiological effects. That was a major reason invoked for prohibitionizing it. When we decided to de-probitionize it were we displaying cowardice and lack of virtue by knowingly harming millions of users? Does fidelity to virtue and courage require us to re-prohibitionize alcohol all over again? Tobacco directly outright kills more people than any other plant product I know of. It has directly killed millions of people and probably kills close to a million people around the world each year even now. If that is more deaths than opiates physiologically directly outright cause; doesn't fidelity to courage and virtue require us to outlaw and suppress tobacco even harder than we currently try to suppress opiates? And if the reason
given for attempting to suppress major narcotics is that they are highly damaging to humans and addictive; then why is marijuana so actively suppressed when it is neither a narcotic, nor nearly as highly damaging to humans as even narcotics, let alone the fully legal drugs alcohol and tobacco, nor addictive?
I think the War On Certain Disfavored Drugs stems from crusading prohibitionist impulses rooted in a particular puritan culture.

Finally, and this brings back in the one problem at a time approach; if we don't knowingly harm others and then pretend there is no ethical question being violated, then how do we justify trying to create an opiate shortage deep enough to drive millions of drug seekers to meth when we know that meth is more damaging to humans and more fulminantly addictive than are the opiates?

I apologise in advance if these questions appear to be
rhetorical arguments; because that would mean I have failed to convey just how real and serious these questions seem to be to me.
(And again, I would like to see the buy-up of all Afghan opium tried to see if it can be made to work).

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