Kandahar -- Afghanistan's poppy crop - source of 90% of the world's illicit opiates - appears to have suffered a major failure this year, according to both US and Afghan officials. Since the majority of Al Kaeda's funding comes from the opium trade, you might think this cause for celebration. But as with all things Afghan, things are not so simple.
To be sure, Al Kaeda's coffers will suffer a major blow. Unfortunately, so will the poverty-stricken farmers who grow the poppies, who in fact will feel the pain from two directions.
To understand why this is so, one must appreciate the viciousness of the Taliban. Not to say that this group invented this; one would have to dig deeper into history than I am ready to at this moment, but for now, suffice to say that their technique has been around in Western Europe for centuries, under the pleasant euphemism of feudalism, or in its more recent garb, loan-sharking. Here's how it works: you're a starving farmer with several children to feed -- God forbid, by several wives that you also cannot afford to feed. Morals aside, the only way out of your catastrophe is by borrowing money from your friendly agent of the Taliban: he (no need for he/she semantics here: it will be He) offers to lend you enough money for enough seeds to cover your humble plot. Mohammed be damned, there will be interest to pay on this loan, and secured by your crop! No crop, no interest payments, no protection of your wife and daughters from my admittedly lustful soldiers. Nothing I can do about that, sorry! In the words of the Corleone family, it's Just Business.
The bottom line is this: yes, this year's poppy-crop disaster is a Bad Thing for the Taliban (and by extension Al-Kaeda), and potentially a Good Thing for us (Western states), but unfortunately, string(s) theory emerges wherever you turn.
Viewing the history of the Opium Wars, and subsequent events, one can only admirer God's sense of irony. Because China refused to trade tea for anything but gold, England created an opiate agriculture in India and then exported its produce to China, addicting millions of Chinese to opium and thereby creating an alternative trading currency: forget Gold, you yellow devils - let's talk Opium.
There is no simpler way to regard this history other than that England became the then-world's largest drug trafficker. The only comedic part of this tragedy is that all this happened for the sake of Tea, which if nothing else attests to the effects of in-breeding on such a small island. As drugs go, Tea ranks among the least harmful. Yet it was considered so valuable that a nation of Chinese opium addicts was a small price to pay.
The question is, How to starve the Taliban while not starving the Afghan farmers who depend for their livelihood on the opium poppies they grow? My suggestion is this: outbid the Taliban. Buy up all the opium we can and remove it from the marketplace. That will not of course make the millions of heroin and opium addicts around the world disappear, but it will stymie the Taliban and with it, the networks of smugglers and traffickers whose arms stretch around the world. As for all the heroin, some of it can go to legal uses, and the rest, I suggest, should be given free to the addicted victims of this horrible trade. It's unlikely that we will cure them, regardless of what threats or therapy we provide. Best, then, to regard it as a medical problem rather than a criminal problem. Of course, we would have to require that addicts register to receive their medication, and prove that they are in fact addicted, but with those measures in place, we can reduce the harm they do to themselves and to society at large. Since the heroin would be free, there would be no need for addicts to come up with hundreds of dollars a day to finance their habit, and that would mean less crime, less prostitution, and so on. Injection clinics administered by nurses would also dramatically reduce and perhaps even eliminate deaths by overdose, not to mention the spread of HIV and other diseases caused by sharing needles. And finally, the opium farmers would be freed from the iron grip held on them by the Taliban and other criminal organizations. They would be free to think about such radical notions as sending their children to school.