Sea of Poppies1
As communism faded from the national radar, the war against drugs assumed the role of America’s new moral battlefield. By the 1980s, anti-drug policy was comfortably swaddled in military rhetoric, and the American government was busy funneling millions into eradication and counter-narcotics programs around the world—in essence, working cleanup on problems it often helped to create. Nowhere was this more apparent than in Afghanistan, which after years of serving as a stage for Cold War anxieties, rose to the fore of global opium production in the 1990s. In the decades that have followed, Afghanistan has become the global poppy capital—in 2007, it produced 93 percent of the world’s opium—as well as the testing grounds for a new trend in American foreign policy: the convergence of American military aims with the war on drugs.
As a site of both the war on terror and the war on drugs, Afghanistan serves Chouvy as a test case for investigating the chicken-or-egg questions that riddle anti-drug policy. What comes first, poverty or poppy growth? Do local warlords spur opium production, or do the conditions that first allowed warlords to take power also give way to a drug trade? Is “narco-terrorism”—the notion that terrorists use drugs to fund insurgencies—actually behind violence in Afghanistan? While the book sometimes reads like an extended dissertation, Opium’s insight lies in its reframing of such questions: despite what some politicians would like you to believe, Chouvy argues, these phenomena—violence, poverty, and drugs—can never be understood independently of each other.
Chouvy posits that opium production is, more often than not, a form of politics by other means—a way for governments or insurgents to make themselves economically competitive. Successful trafficking is also contingent upon a specific set of conditions: the pre-existence of the drug, an ongoing or recently ended conflict, and poverty powerful enough to make farmers consider risking their lives to grow the labor-intensive drug. This final point is significant: farmers rarely elect to grow poppies unless food shortages and extreme poverty compel them to do so. Moreover, while opium is often held up as one of the most profitable crops available to farmers, this argument ignores the drug’s enormous production costs. By pursuing a strategy of eradication (and not addressing the socioeconomic motivations behind opium growth), Chouvy argues, the war on drugs has only made things worse. “Despite its gigantic yet unmeasured global cost (around US $50 billion spent annually by the United States alone in the 2000s), the war on drugs has not only failed to reduce both the surface area dedicated to illicit drug crops and the quantities produced; it has also encouraged their spread worldwide, and done much to contribute to the militarization of many countries and areas of production.”
So far, no strategy has proven successful, but official U.S. policy is slowly moving in more positive directions. One of the biggest shifts came last summer, when Richard Holbrooke reversed the Bush policy of forced eradication in favor of interdiction and alternative development programs—initiatives that enable poor farmers to cultivate products other than opium. Explaining the decision, Holbrooke’s logic parallels Chouvy’s. "The farmers are not our enemy; they're just growing a crop to make a living," Holbrooke said last July. "It's the drug system. So the U.S. policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban."