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Want to Buy Some Opium?

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Originally Published At Demagogues and Dictators

The focus of the U.S. Military in Afghanistan has apparently shifted towards Kandahar. General McChrystal recently declared that the operation has already begun. But what about Marjah? Only recently it was the primary theater for U.S. forces, and, as written here, the real struggle began after kinetic operations ended. So now, at the most important juncture, why are resources and attention being pulled elsewhere? There are numerous outstanding issues in Marjah, and neglecting them now will undermine any progress made in the past.

One of the most vexing issues in Marjah is the opium crop, which is due to be harvested soon. In a drastic change of policy, U.S. and ISAF forces will not be eradicating the crop. The reason is simple -- Afghans who planted the crop are relying on the profits from the harvest to make ends meet and feed their families. Destroying the crop would only serve to impoverish the farmers and further erode the legitimacy of the Karzai government. General McChrystal is right to eschew eradication, but that alone doesn't solve the opium problem.

It's important to understand that farmers do not become wealthy by growing opium. They do it because it is a hardy crop and in times of insecurity is a reliable producer of enough cash to survive. The illicit wealth goes to a myriad of middlemen, from local drug runners and Taliban enforcers to international smugglers and distributors. These middlemen often coerce farmers into growing poppy. In areas where the Afghan government's writ is circumscribed, local Taliban sometimes require local farmers to plant opium, and threaten punishment if they do not deliver a satisfactory output after the harvest.

When viewed through this prism of desperation and coercion, it becomes clear that benign neglect from coalition forces is not sufficient to address the problem.

The Taliban and drug smugglers will still make their profits, and farmers will still be forced to grow more opium next year. A more active and comprehensive solution is needed to ensure that opium is not planted next year, and this solution does exist -- the U.S. should buy the current opium crop from farmers. Additionally, the coalition should distribute seeds for other crops and make clear that all subsequent opium yields will be destroyed without compensation. In other words, help the farmers survive by paying for their crop now, but warn them that this will never happen again and help them shift to other products.

Obviously this is a solution with warts, but it has not been fully examined. Ron Nordland wrote it off with a nod to an unattributed source, who "feared that it would only encourage more opium cultivation -- and might be illegal under United States law, turning American troops into de facto drug financiers." Dion Nissenbaum for McClatchy similarly dismissed the option as "politically unpalatable" without any further discussion.

Purchasing the crop need not be considered illegal. Treating it as a military expenditure to create stability in Afghanistan is justifiable, particularly considering it would save American lives and cost less than another force escalation. Nor would buying the crop turn American troops into "de fact drug financiers." The poppy would be promptly destroyed, not trafficked, and the majority of the funds would go to struggling Afghan farmers, not the Taliban middlemen. Another workaround is for American troops to pay Afghan farmers to destroy their own crops, circumventing the legal issue and ensuring that the farmers are justly compensated.

There are, however, two outstanding issues that make purchasing the crop a risky gambit: security and governance. Doing so is predicated on the notion that Marjah will remain under coalition/Afghan government control in the foreseeable future. Drug smugglers and Taliban forces accustomed to easy profits will be angered if they are cut out of the proceeds this year, and will most likely seek reprisals against Afghan farmers. Security must be guaranteed in order to protect the farmers. Furthermore, illicit traffickers will presumably pressure farmers to plant more opium next year, and threaten to destroy any other crop or bring violence if they do not receive the allotted quota of poppy. To prevent farmers from falling victim to capricious traffickers and Taliban, security is once again of the utmost priority. Furthermore, many in the Afghan government, including the President's own brother, have been implicated in the drug trade. For this solution to work, security must be maintained and accompanied by honest governance. This means the Afghan government must protect farmers from Taliban violence, stop participating in the drug trade, and encourage the growth of a diversity of legal crops.

It's a tall order for a struggling government, and I have made no secret of my pessimistic attitude towards the Karzai regime. But something must be done to break the cycle of dependence between the farmers and the Taliban, and turning a blind eye is simply not enough.