US and Nato leaders need to understand that they can wage the war against radical Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan or wage a war on narcotics — but they can’t do both with any prospect of success. The opium trade is a huge part — better than one‐third — of the country’s economy. Attempts to suppress it will provoke fierce opposition. Worse yet, opium grows best in the southern provinces populated by Pashtuns, a people traditionally hostile to a strong central government and any foreign troop presence. These same provinces produced the Taliban and more easily revert to supporting fundamentalist militias than their Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara neighbours to the north.
Alternatives to opium offer little hope. More than 90% of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan. Taking on opium in Afghanistan means taking on the world’s demand for opium. Opium purchases for medicinal uses and substitute crop programmes with wheat, saffron and pomegranates will not stanch the demand for illicit drug production. In fact, reducing the illegal harvest with these efforts only makes the black‐market prices rise and encourages farmers to grow more. If the Cold War taught us anything, it is that you cannot fight economics.