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An Obvious, But Ignored Strategy to Defeat the Taliban

Posted: 05/18/11 12:07 PM ET

Osama bin Laden is dead but the Taliban is not. Despite nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan, the Taliban has still not been defeated completely. We cannot afford further losses of human life and treasure, but neither can we afford to withdraw unless America's basic security requirements are met. The most effective way to critically disable the Taliban is to drastically reduce their income and delegitimize them among local populations. What has not been achieved on the battlefield may yet be accomplished in the marketplace.

The Taliban is largely funded by the sale of opium, extortion of western contractors, and illegal taxation and intimidation of the Afghan people. Therefore, if the US buys and stockpiles the entire opium crop from local farmers in Afghanistan, our enemies will be deprived of funding and forced to turn to other, clearly criminal activities to survive, revealing themselves as lawless predators, not upholders of Islam.

This idea is not new. It has been considered since 2002 by the US, EU, and Canada, but was never acted upon because it was considered too costly and controversial. But now, with bin Laden gone and Al Qaeda severely weakened, it is time to revisit this idea.

Realistically, the Afghan economy is largely dependent on the income generated by poppy production. Given the climate, level of economic development, and market forces, opium is the ideal crop for farmers -- the only one that (without huge investments in price supports, irrigation and infrastructure) permits Afghan farmers to reliably support their families. Like farmers everywhere, Afghans decide what to plant based upon likely return. The farm gate price for opium has skyrocketed to $475 per kilogram. At this price, no other crop can compete.

Many Afghans deeply resent US efforts to curb the poppy trade because it is the only crop in current market conditions that provides a viable and dependable livelihood. When we fight the poppy trade, the Taliban grows in strength because the people turn to them for protection.

As long as the Taliban is the highest bidder for this lucrative crop, they will persist and expand. While an ongoing US purchase of the poppy crop will not entirely eliminate their funding, they will be forced to other avenues of extortion for financing. They will no longer be the protectors of Afghan families' livelihoods and supporters of the economic functioning of the state, but instead will be revealed as thugs preying on the innocent.

Purchasing the entire annual Afghan poppy crop would make us the clear allies of the local people, enabling them to support themselves with legitimate business, while depriving our enemies of billions of dollars in support and removing 90 percent of the illegal European heroin trade. The current poppy yield is down, but even if production were to rise again due to legitimization to its all-time high (8,200 tons), the cost at the current all-time high price of $475/kg would come to less than $4 billion annually -- an insignificant sum compared with our annual combat outlay of $108 billion.

The US and other nations currently license countries (such as Thailand and Australia) to produce opium poppy for medicinal purposes. These crops are sold to pharmaceutical companies to produce morphine for post-surgical and palliative care. The Afghan opium crop could be converted into medical grade morphine, stockpiled under guard in the US, and put at the disposal of an international body such as the World Health Organization, which could distribute it as needed, at little or no cost, for national emergencies and to medical providers in the developing world.

A poppy purchase program might not completely eliminate the insurgency or deprive the Taliban of all income. Some opium fields could be grown in ever more remote areas along the Pakistan frontier. But buying almost the entire opium crop would significantly cripple our enemies. It would also permit the development of a legitimate Afghan government, a necessity to maintain and protect our security interests in the region.

We are set to begin the drawdown of our troops this August. The defense department reported last week that while progress has been made by the surge, the situation is fragile and reversible. Withdrawing without disabling the Taliban would result in a failed narco-state in the hands of terrorist extremists.

Alternatively, we could save billions of dollars and untold thousands of lives, undermine a seemingly intractable enemy, and improve regional stability and our national security by simply buying the entire Afghan opium crop. It would cost no more per year than a single extra week of the combat mission. Instead of repeating the mistakes of Cold War conflicts, we should remember that era's larger lesson: if you can't outfight an opponent, outspend them.

Dr. Ruth Bettelheim currently practices as an Executive/Life Coach. Dr. James Nathan is Khaled bin Sultan Eminent Scholar, Auburn University at Montgomery