Afghanistan’s Heroin Problem

It seems to me that the link between the poppy trade and the Taliban in Afghanistan is often discussed in the US in a somewhat confused way. Just because the opium trade is a major source of funding for the Taliban doesn’t mean that cracking down on “the opium trade” hurts the Taliban. If I deal heroin here in DC than a crackdown on “heroin dealers” would be bad for me if and only if I actually get shut down. If, instead, the police shut down other heroin dealers then that’s good for me, the cops have shut down the competition. Now if what they’re primarily concerned with is reducing the overall quantity of heroin dealing in the city maybe they don’t care about that. But if the issue is that some heroin dealers are using drug money to buy televisions and other heroin dealers are using drug money to buy bombs that are used to kill Marines then it would make sense for the cops to be a good deal more discriminating.

And this is basically the situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban gets money from the poppy trade, but it’s not my understanding that they have a monopoly on it. Under the circumstances, crackdowns on non-Taliban poppy farmers or traffickers is a way of enhancing the Taliban’s revenue by choking supply and raising prices. The logic of fighting the Taliban is that we should offer assistance to anyone involved in the poppy trade who’s not involved in funding the insurgency. Think of the US and the Taliban as like rival mafia operations. We want people involved in poppy to pay protection money (i.e., taxes) to Hamid Karzai and to avoid paying protection money to the Taliban. We want to prove that we can protect our poppy farmers/smugglers from the Taliban while cracking down on people who collaborate with the Taliban.


The problem is that formally sponsoring a group of favored poppy entrepreneurs would go against our the policy commitment that we (and other relevant players) have made to keeping heroin illegal.