Jacob Sullum

According to a recent report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, 19,047 hectares of poppies were eradicated in Afghanistan this year, 24 percent more than in 2006. Meanwhile, the number of opium-free provinces more than doubled, from six to 13.

Those victories were somewhat overshadowed by the news that the total amount of land devoted to opium poppies in Afghanistan rose from 165,000 to 193,000 hectares, an increase of 17 percent. Due to "favorable weather conditions," estimated opium production rose even more, hitting an all-time high of 8,200 metric tons, 34 percent more than the previous record, set last year.

Since their efforts have had precisely the opposite of the result they intended, U.S. drug warriors, predictably enough, plan to try harder, calling for more eradication, possibly including aerial herbicide spraying, and more interdiction. Over the long term, if history is any guide, these supply-reduction measures will have little or no impact on heroin consumption. Over the short term, they will continue to strengthen the Taliban insurgency.

The U.N. report emphasizes that poppy growing is becoming increasingly concentrated in the southern provinces where the Taliban are strongest. Having forgotten whatever religious scruples they may once have had about the opium trade, the Taliban make money by charging poppy farmers for protection and taxing traffickers at checkpoints, a fundraising opportunity created by U.S. demands that the Afghan government wipe out a crop the U.N. says accounts for one-third of the Afghan economy.

"Afghanistan's drug money corrupts the government, weakens institutions, and strengthens the Taliban," says a new report from the U.S. State Department. It would be more accurate to say that Americas drug policy, which it insists on exporting to every other country in the world, corrupts the Afghan government, weakens institutions, and strengthens the Taliban.

The State Department draws exactly the wrong conclusion from this situation, saying "the increasing linkage between the regions major drug trafficking organizations and insurgencies prompts the need to elevate the drug enforcement mission and integrate it appropriately into the comprehensive security strategy." In fact, the "drug enforcement mission" -- which alienates Afghans from their government, helps fund the insurgency and distracts NATO and Afghan forces from the central goal of reducing violence and establishing order -- is fundamentally at odds with the "security strategy."

The U.N. says this year's opium output, which represents 93 percent of the illicit world supply, "exceeds global demand by a large margin," indicating a stockpile of thousands of tons. Despite their concerns that opium profits are helping to fund terrorism, U.S. and U.N. drug warriors seem intent on raising the value of that stockpile by curtailing production.

Even if theyre successful, they cannot reasonably hope to have a lasting impact on heroin availability. If cracking down on opium production in some Afghan provinces simply shifts it to others, cracking down on opium production throughout Afghanistan will simply shift it to other countries. That has been the general pattern during the last century of opium "eradication," which might more accurately be called opium relocation.

A decade ago, Pino Arlacchi, then the head of the U.N.s anti-drug program, declared that "global coca leaf and opium poppy acreage totals an area less than half the size of Puerto Rico," so "there is no reason it cannot be eliminated." For a less optimistic man, the fact that such a tiny percentage of the earths surface is needed to supply the world with heroin and cocaine would be cause to doubt the effectiveness of eradication.

Speaking of cocaine, in recent years, the U.S. government has spent billions of dollars on anti-drug aid to Colombia, with no discernible effect on prices or purity. Colombia, which still supplies about 90 percent of Americas illicit cocaine, has been helping to train Afghan police in anti-drug tactics, and Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says it provides "a good model" for Afghanistan.


Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
 
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