Opium is back, thanks to us. On May 20, 2001, the New York Times reported that the Taliban, then the controlling body in Afghanistan, had in just one year almost totally eliminated the production of opium poppies that had been supplying much of the world's illegal narcotics trade. In recognition of this valuable work in promoting the War on Drugs, the Bush administration announced a $43 million grant to Afghanistan to help deal with the effects of a drought.
The Taliban had effected the reduction in opium production through a process of "consensus building." First they would go to the farmers and politely explain that growing opium was a violation of religious doctrine. Any farmers who failed to show a proper appreciation of the religious implications of opium production were thrown in jail. On Nov. 23, 2001, when US relations with Afghanistan had changed for the worse, the White House released reports of Taliban atrocities, including the killing of 8 boys for the offense of laughing at Taliban soldiers, but in May of 2001, when the Taliban was cooperating with the War on Drugs, the official description was "jail."
The US currently owns Afghanistan. Given our short-attention-span administration, we tend to forget, but yes, we're still responsible for Afghanistan too. The New York Times, on April 17, made the point with a report headlined "In Afghanistan, US Envoy Sits In Seat of Power."
And the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has issued a warning that the production of opium has been rising steadily. According to Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UNODC, in 2003, the opium production in Afghanistan reached an estimated 3,600 tons, an increase of 6% from the previous year, generating an income of $1 billion for farmers and $1.3 billion for traffickers, equivalent to 52% of estimated GDP. In a United Nations press release dated March 30, Mr. Costas said that the opium trade feeds instability in the whole region, as the narcotic money provides resources to terrorists and insurgents.
The UNODC has reported that opium poppy cultivation has increased extensively in the irrigated fields in Afghanistan. While a key part of the UN program has been to offer alternative to farmers who were forced into the narcotics trade for lack of other sources of income, the best the US has been able to offer is wheat. Wheat, aside from requiring more water than opium poppies, remains one of the most heavily subsidized crops in the world, making it a poor choice. In February 2004, the US Department of Agriculture reported that Saudi Arabia was reducing, but not eliminating, its subsidies for wheat farmers. Saudi Arabia doesn't seem like fertile soil for wheat production and the nation has other sources of income &emdash; but they still find it necessary to subsidize their own wheat production, which deprives the Afghani farmers of a potential market. The UN has said that Afghani farmers have little incentive to raise wheat because of low prices, but no good alternatives have been suggested that would be suitable for the conditions in Afghanistan. The farmers of Afghanistan, with an annual per capita income of under $900, aren't trying to corrupt the world; just to make a living from the only cash crop they have.
The War in Afghanistan was a legitimate part of the War on Terror, but our stewardship in Afghanistan shows what we've accomplished. Osama bin Laden is still at large.
Sam Uretsky lives on Long Island, N.Y.