Danger Room: I’m also mystified to our approach to drug policy over there [Afghanistan – Will edit]. Do we have a single approach to narcotics there?
Mullen: The overall strategy is to replace the poppies with crops that will provide a standard of living for the farmers. I was there in Helmand [province] the other day… with a full-blown poppy crop sitting there. At the high level, the strategic approach is to create an agriculture capability that moves to what it used to be. Y’know, there was a time a few decades ago where they fed their own people and actually exported agriculture. So I think from an overall strategic approach, that’s where we’re headed. There are some tactical things that we’ve got to work our way through. But, as ambassador [Richard] Holbrooke said, we are out of the eradication business. That’s not the strategy any more.
Danger Room: And you agree with that?
Mullen: Yes, I do. I think it’s got to be a standard of living issue, be an income issue. These farmers, they’ve got to be able to feed their families.
While this isn’t exactly a full-throated endorsement of legalization, Mullen’s comments suggest that the military is willing to make a few tactical concessions for the sake of pacifying Afghanistan.
On a related note, the issue of Afghanistan’s opium production has always struck me as one of the few counterinsurgency-related problems that can be addressed by the United States’ overwhelming superiority in resources and infrastructure. If farmers are selling their crops to opium refiners, why not simply pay above-market prices for poppies to undercut drug suppliers? The estimated cost of this approach certainly isn’t prohibitive:
Most prominent among these proposals is an analysis by the Senlis Council, a drug-policy research group with offices in London, Brussels and Kabul. The council argues that the United States and Britain waste more than $800 million a year, as well as soldiers’ lives, trying futilely to eradicate poppies.
Instead, it calculated two years ago, Afghanistan’s whole crop could be purchased for about $600 million – the “farm gate” price, not the street value of the heroin into which it is refined, which is over $50 billion. (The “farm gate” estimate has gone up as the crop has increased, and may be $1 billion now.)
We’ve also used similar programs to combat the narcotics trade in India and Turkey in the 1970s:
There is an American precedent for buying. In the late 1960s, the Nixon administration, fighting a heroin epidemic, pressured Turkey, then the world’s chief grower, to eradicate its poppy crops.
Unable to do that (both because of corruption and because peasant farmers in Turkey can vote), Turkey started licensing farmers in 1974 to grow poppies for the morphine trade, and the United States gave protected-market status to Turkey and India in 1981, obligating itself to buy 80 percent of the raw material for American painkillers from them. Why not, the Senlis Council and others argue, let Afghanistan join the legitimate supply chain?
Sounds like a reasonable plan to me.