Ever since the US invasion in 2003, opium has been a problem in Afghanistan. It was a traditional crop which had been virtually eliminated by the Taliban in one of the few positive aspects of their repressive, fundamentalist regime. Ironically, its resurgence now fuels the Taliban resurgence as well as the government corruption which greatly complicates efforts to address the insurgency. Afghanistan now supplies some 95% of the world's opium, helping to undermine social systems in both the United States and Europe, while increasing addiction in Afghanistan itself and neighboring Pakistan as well as Central Asia and Russia, to the clear dismay of Russian officials.
Concerted US and NATO efforts to address the problem initially focused on crop eradication. One result was a hardening of attitudes against the United States and in support of the Taliban in rural areas where subsistence farmers depended on the opium crop for their livelihoods. Eradication proved to be a dismal failure.
There had been some previous efforts, particularly by the Senlis Council (now The International Council on Security and Development) to turn opium into a legitimate crop, supporting the production of pharmaceutical painkillers which are chronically in short supply in that part of the world. This proposed a model where licensed production would make opium a profitable, but closely controlled crop. In Afghanistan, this approach was soundly rejected, partly due to objections by the Afghan government and others that such an effort would legitimize a scourge -- unspoken in the background was the fact that it would also undermine a major source of illegitimate income for a number of senior government officials.
Alternative approaches of promoting replacement crops have had relatively good success in the northern parts of the country. Opium has been virtually eliminated in twenty provinces. It is critical for efforts elsewhere to be able to show that farmers here who have switched have clearly benefited from the change. Now opium concerns are focused in the south, traditional Pashtun areas where Taliban influence is strong. In these areas efforts now emphasize identifying and eliminating opium collection, processing and export activities. These efforts have been supported by a poor 2010 opium harvest due to unfavorable weather conditions in the fall and, more importantly, to the spread of an unexpected opium blight dramatically reducing the crop in some areas. So farmers in the Marjah area are now much more open to planting alternative crops. Physical control efforts have also been important in some areas. South of Marjah, for example, the land is criss-crossed with canals that restrict movement and so make suppression efforts more effective. The result here, however, is probably that farmers are simply stockpiling opium (which is a compact product that can be stored for some years) waiting for better marketing opportunities.
With food prices up and poor opium harvests, it is an opportune time to review policies, particularly the previous all-or-none policy in regard to buying opium. There is an obvious middle course - to buy opium and simply burn it. The prices to farmers are minimal, and every kilo of opium bought and destroyed would be a kilo not supporting illegal drug use. The most important objective is to insure that raw opium is drained from the insurgent and criminal networks. In fact, James Nathan has provided a solid analysis of what this might cost and its clear benefits. And of course it is also possible, on an interim basis, for the Afghan government to take purchased opium and sell it in lots into the legitimate global pharmaceutical network, while continuing efforts to minimize future production. This would avoid the problem of labeling opium as a legitimate crop, or the expectations of farmers that they might be able to continue its production under some more liberal future regime.
Opium purchases could also be structured to promote the shift to alternative crops, especially foodstuffs. This would resonate with traditional religious inhibitions on opium (the very inhibitions the Taliban earlier enforced) and promote local food security. The simplest way to do this would be to provide a very attractive price for any offered opium - a price attractive to the farmers - and to pay this partly in materials which would make the alternative crops more attractive. This could obviously include good seed and fertilizer, but also equipment which would make the alternative crops more profitable, items such as threshing machines for wheat or processing equipment for grapes or young saplings for traditional orchard crops such as pomegranates. By encouraging farmers to turn in stocks of opium as the same time providing added incentive to switch crops, buying opium could provide a real boost to efforts to suppress illegitimate opium production.