CNN Terrorism Analyst Peter Bergen on Afghan Opium Conundrum

Last week I promised to post comments by Peter Bergen (CNN terrorism analyst) responding to a question I asked of him last week about the Afghan opium conundrum. Following is a transcript, prepared with great labor by DRCNet's Tom Klun. (Tom was working from online video of the forum, which took place at the New America Foundation. The forum was devoted to the presenters' findings in a new report on the relationship of the Iraq War to jihadist terrorism -- an issue on which DRCNet as a drug policy organization has no position.)

David Borden, Drug War Chronicle: A number of scholars and NGOs have pointed out that both the opium economy and campaigns against opium growing in Afghanistan are helping the Taliban -- the former through funding, the latter by alienating people from the government and driving farmers to them. Our editor met some of these farmers about a year and a half ago. My question is, how do you see both the opium economy and opium eradication playing into the situation with Al Qaeda; and short of outright legalization (which might not happen in 2007 [editor's note: understatement]), how do you feel the opium issue ought to be handled?
 
Peter Bergen: Well, eradication doesn't work, I mean, there's a vast amount of academic literature showing that it just pushes the growers into the arms of the insurgents, and it is very unpopular in Afghanistan. In fact, Karzai has basically rejected US efforts to get ground spraying, he's pushed that back to 2008. He's saying we're going to just do eradication by hand or by tractor. One of the reasons the US military didn't really get involved in the whole drug issue is that they had bigger fish to fry, which is going after Al Qaeda and the Taliban. I mean, clearly the Taliban is benefitting from this, as are people in the south.
 
Afghanistan is by the way the 5th poorest country in the world. It would be like saying we're basically going to take away the only way you can make a living, by eradicating your fields. So we have to come up with something a little more creative than just saying we're going to eradicate. That would be bad for counterinsurgency policy, and I don't think it will work. So what are the two options? One is, if you're going to do crop substitution you have to subsidize the crops that are being substituted. You can't get people to grow cotton unless they can make roughly what they would be making growing poppy. Now we do this all the time with our farmers, the EU does it all the time with its farmers, paying people to grow things or not to grow things. We're spending $750 million dollars a year on drug eradications in Afghanistan, the farmers are making $750 million dollars, so we've got a fair amount of money to play with, roughly the same amount of money they are benefiting. We can use that for, you know, to prop up the price, give them money to grow crops like cotton, nuts and fruits.
 
And also we should consider that the legalized opiate trade is dominated by Turkey and India, which basically have a lock. Eight percent of the world has almost no morphine, so there's this huge pain crisis in the developing world. Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world, where we have a huge national security interest. Why not amend the law that is now in place, where Turkey and India are basically mandated to get 80% of the legal opiate trade from US manufacturers? Why not have a pilot project in a province in Afghanistan where there is reasonable security and just see if this idea -- you don't have to do the legalized opiate trade for the whole country, just see in one province if this would work and subsidize farmers so that they can grow poppy for the legalized opiate trade. That's an idea, but either way we're going to have to do crop substitution with subsidies. Nothing else is going to work, we can't just eradicate.
 

Bergen was presumably referring to a proposal floated by the Senlis Council, a European drug policy and development think tank. (It was the 2005 Senlis conference in Kabul that took Phil to the troubled fourth world country.) It's good to see such a high-profile US-based expert raising the possibility.

I actually encountered skepticism about the idea from some of my European colleagues (as well as support for it) when I traveled to Brussels last fall for a conference at the European Parliament. One of them, while expressing admiration for the beautiful execution of the campaign by the Senlis people, pointed out that as long as opiates are illegal for non-medical use, someone is going to supply them, which potentially means that Afghanistan could just have more opium growing in total, the licensed market and the black market -- Ahmed might switch to growing for the licit supply, but that doesn't mean his brother or uncle will. I largely agree with that point.

The other argument is one to which I am instinctively less sympathetic, but which came from someone I respect and for which I don't have sufficient information to evaluate. This other colleague said that the poor countries where the new supply of opiate pain relievers would go to, countries in Africa and so forth, don't have the infrastructure to control them -- they would be a target for organized crime, the drugs might not even get to the patients, and there would be a new organized crime problem of a type that those countries don't have now.

After thinking about this for awhile, I came to the tentative conclusion that we should at least be calling for a pilot project. (It was gratifying to see Peter Bergen say the same thing.) This is why: It's true that new growers of black market opium for the non-medical market should be expected to take the place of any growers who switch to the licensed medical market, or the same growers will just grow more -- supply fills demand, and neither eradication nor substitution nor licensing for a market that's already legal will reduce it. But that doesn't mean all the new growing will be in Afghanistan. Some of it might crop up elsewhere, and there are less destructive places for it to happen than in that unstable country that harbors people who want to kill us. And why shouldn't Afghan farmers have the right to participate in the legal economy? They certainly need the work as much as anyone does. Lastly, patients in severe, chronic pain deserve medication, even if there is a risk of diversion of the supply causing crime, even if in fact it's an inevitability. Let the pilot growing project in Afghanistan be accompanied by pilot opiate pain management projects in the destination countries, with the security issues on both ends getting thought through at the same time.

Time for a drug policy reform/global security campaign?

Location: 
Afghanistan
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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