Foreign Policy Blogs

An Afghan Pharmaceutical Empire?

Afghan troops target a poppy field for eradication in 2009. (Photo: isafmedia)

With the United States and NATO making plans to draw down most of their troops over the next few years, Afghanistan faces a precarious future. While the military situation has improved, insurgency continues; the government’s authority extends little beyond the capital; foreign aid accounts for 80 percent of the national budget; and the country’s principal cash crop, opium poppies, is a criminal enterprise, or rather a network of vying criminal enterprises that includes warlords, government officials, and insurgents. Afghanistan accounts for 90 percent of the world’s supply of heroin. Production and revenues continue to increase despite efforts to eradicate poppies or to divert farmers to alternative crops.

Even when ineffective, Government eradication efforts have the perverse effect of generating resentment among the poppy growers, who are concentrated in southern Taliban strongholds, such as Helmand and Kandahar. Meanwhile, the Taliban, who sought to eradicate poppy cultivation when they were in charge, have now established themselves as the protectors of peasants whose livelihood depends on income from poppies. Thus, the poppy economy tends to strengthen political support for the insurgency in certain key areas.

Writing in U.S. News & World Report, Vartan Gregorian, president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a philanthropic foundation, proposes turning that last liability into an asset. He cites a proposal put forward in 2005 by the Senlis Council (now, the International Council for Security and Development). The objective is to redirect the same farming activity into a legal route through village-based licensing and production of pharmaceutical morphine. Similar programs, supported by the United States, have succeeded in places like India and Turkey (although presumably on a different scale). The plan could lay a viable and legal basis for economic development and provide affordable pain-relieving drugs for developing countries. Gregorian notes that 80 percent of the world’s people currently have no access to morphine.

Skeptics argue that Afghanistan’s corrupt and inefficient government is incapable of administering such a program effectively and that the price for legal opium is far less than the criminal enterprises will pay. To that, Gregorian suggests that multinational administration could help, but also that virtually anything would be an improvement over the present situation: the poppy production is already there, already central to the Afghan economy, and highly resistant to eradication. In addition, if less remunerative, a legal opium market would be more stable and less dangerous to the farmers than the current system. Traditional authorities could be co-opted into the program’s administration, and Afghan clerics could point out that the production of addictive substances is forbidden under Islam, while the production of medicines certainly is not.

Of course, Gregorian’s proposal, on its own, would not be a solution to Afghanistan’s problems. By providing viable economic foundation, however, it could be a useful and even necessary supplement to military and diplomatic efforts to secure the country’s future.