Opium and Democracy


May 4, 2005

This commentary originally appeared in United Press International on May 4, 2005.

When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stood beside Afghan President Hamid Karzai, she made an enlightened statement about cutting Afghanistan's opium production, saying: “It is a problem that took a while to develop, and it will take time to end the problem.”

Rice's statement in March is the clearest confirmation yet of a gradual turn in U.S. policy since early 2004, when the Bush administration and Congress were calling for an immediate crackdown on Afghanistan's biggest cash crop. Her statement shows the United States' new patience and acceptance that it will take time for a democratic Afghanistan to eliminate opium production.

When the United States earlier pushed Karzai to immediately end opium production in his war-torn country — without instituting the repressive tactics that historically have led to rapid success — the United States was giving the Afghan leader a virtually impossible task. Afghanistan could please the United States only by aggressive action that would further impoverish its already poor population and undermine the government's legitimacy.

The Taliban announced a ban on growing poppies — the source of opium — in Afghanistan in July 2000, saying this reflected the teachings of the Koran. Already feared by Afghans for its brutality, the Taliban achieved compliance with its poppy ban by tearing up the fields of a few early producers who violated the ban, thereby showing that the government was serious.

The result of the Taliban's order was a dramatic reduction in Afghan opium production, which fell from 3,600 tons in 2000 to just 185 tons in 2001. This caused world opium production to fall by more than 60 percent.

This wasn't the first time that large and rapid reductions in opium production have been achieved by massive government repression.

When the Communists took power in China in 1949, the nation was a major opium producer and suffered from what may have been the world's worst opium consumption problem. Within two years of a police crackdown on opium production and consumption — resulting in mass executions and imprisonments — opium production and use had essentially disappeared in China.

The Islamic Revolution in 1979 in Iran used some of the same police-state tactics as China to eliminate the large production and consumption of opium that had prevailed under the rule of the shah of Iran.

This year there may be yet another, slightly less dramatic instance of successful reduction. Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, is the world's second-largest producer of opium. A rebel movement, the United Wa State Army, has control of the major poppy-growing areas and has already reduced production by three-quarters in the past six years, with a realistic promise to end production by June this year. It has accomplished this mostly by forcible relocation of some 100,000 peasant farming families who grow poppies.

But if Afghanistan's current government resorted to the tactics of the Taliban, the Chinese Communists, Iran's dictatorship and the rebels in Myanmar to end opium production, it would rightly be condemned by the United States and other democratic nations. This is because in each of the successful crackdowns on opium, authorities relied on methods that are simply not acceptable in a democratic nation, no matter how noble the purpose.

The success of anti-opium campaigns in more politically open settings is much more gradual. Thailand, once a major world opium producer, is the leading example. A combination of general economic development and targeted programs — both crop substitution and law enforcement — led Thailand to almost end its opium production over a period of more than a decade. Pakistan, also a formerly significant producer, has managed to almost entirely exit opium production over a similar period, notwithstanding a recent upturn in poppy harvests.

Going after traffickers rather than farmers, albeit politically much more acceptable, is even more difficult. Few governments, authoritarian or otherwise, have had a high degree of success in this arena. While ending poppy production, Iran and Pakistan are still major drug traffickers. The recent Thai crackdown, with the extra-judicial killing of 2,000 drug dealers in less than a year, seems to have lessened domestic drug use but does not offer a helpful model for a democracy-building Afghanistan.

Secretary Rice's call for patience in the fight against opium production in Afghanistan shows an acceptance of the dilemma Afghanistan faces and is an encouraging indication that the U.S. government has learned from history.

“Outside View” © 2005 United Press International

Peter Reuter is a professor in the School of Public Policy and Department of Criminology at the University of Maryland, and co-director of the RAND Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center. Victoria Greenfield is a senior economist at the RAND Corporation.

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