Why not napalm the poppy fields?

I haven’t seen this addressed yet, so here goes.

I’ve heard from several media sources that the Al Qaeda network may get large portions of its funding from the illicit growth of opium poppies and the sale of opium derivatives, including heroin. In fact, according to the CIA World Factbook, Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of heroin, and that they had something like 51,500 hectares in poppy cultivation in 1999.

That’s a lot of land area. You can’t grow this stuff in caves. Why not behead one of Al Qaeda’s main sources of income while we have the opportunity? According to what I hear from Rumsfeld, we more or less own the skies above Afghanistan, and giant fields of poppies can’t be that hard to find, with satellite imagery. Hell, I’ve worked quite extensively with LANDSAT imagery, and I’m pretty sure I could write a classification to find likely targets in a few minutes. And that’s using low-res data. Give me the detail of a Defense Department spysat, and I’m sure it could be done to a high degree of detail.

So, how about it? Am I barking up the wrong tree? Have I forgotten something? Should we go ahead and start strapping napalm munitions to our bombers?

This years harvest is already done.

Good point, but presumably we could prevent the fields from being used again. Then there are the inevitable storehouses, laboratories, etc.

This is actually some clever thinking, Ogre.

The scorched earth policy worked so well in Vietnam. :rolleyes:

If you napalm the poppy fields, you remove one of the few opportunities the peasants have to earn any kind of livelihood. What crop are you going to replace it with? And are you going to pay them the same price they can currently get for opium? What other crops is the terrain suited to, and what benefit would there be to farmers in growing them instead of opium?

It seems to me that one of the worst things the West could do is render the land useless. We aren’t going to “win the hearts” and minds of these people by destroying what little they have.

I asked if it might be a good idea, reprise. You know, iquiring as to the efficacy and feasibility of certain options. I didn’t necessarily advocate it. Your sarcasm is misplaced. Good God, I find that roll-eyes smiley offensive.

One interesting issue that I’ve dug up concerning this: in May of 2001, the Taliban imposed a crackdown on the growth of opium poppies in Afghanistan in accordance with Islamic law. Th UN found no reason to doubt that they’d ended the practice in a single growing season.

Cite: http://www.mapinc.org/drugnews/v01/n904/a07.html

The questions then become, assuming the veracity of the Taliban’s crackdown,

[li]Why has it been presented, by Tony Blair and others, as a reason for stabilizing Afghanistan and ending the Taliban’s control?[/li][li]Where is Al Qaeda getting new funds now, assuming that opium trade was a major portion of their income?[/li][li]Why, if Bin Laden is beholden to the Taliban, or vice versa, did they enact the crackdown in the first place? If Al Qaeda is big buddies with the Taliban, how could they have allowed it? This casts large doubts on the veracity of the crackdown, in my opinion.[/li][/ul]

Further information on the status of Afghanistan as a drug producing nation, from the DEA website.


I think reprise’s point was that its not a good idea. If anything the opium fields are a point of contention between the Afghans and the Taliban. Certainly it would be a bad idea to, as reprise said, “remove one of the few opportunities the peasants have to earn any kind of livelihood”, which is exactly what opium cultivation is.

If you’re anti-drug this might be a hard pill to swallow (so to speak), but the Afghanis do depend on that crop and that alone is fine by me…especially when we’re trying to win them over.

One very important thing is to not simply try to kill two birds with one stone and fight the war on drugs at the same time… That would be a very bad move from many perspectives.


I’m against the war on drugs. However if opium is a major source of income for terrorist then poppy fields are a legitimate target for attack. If it is true that the season is over then we should drop leafleats warning against planting such fields in the future. Heck, maybe we can even help them get seeds for producing food or something. Growing stuff in Afghanistan might be a pain in the ass though.


As the reliance of the peasants on drugs as a cash crop has been an issue in other regions (Colombia, for instance), I suspect that one of the issues being considered in the longterm plan to rebuild Afghanistan is what form of sustainable agriculture can replace the poppy fields.

Intuitively, I suspect that any terrorist organisations relying on the sale of opium to finance themselves would simply find another high value product to sell on the black market if the poppy fields were destroyed - so the effect on the Afghan farmers would be devastating, while the impact on the terrorist organisations (which as I understand it make their money from trafficking rather than growing) would merely cause them some short-term inconvenience.

Having seen some interviews with the Afghani landowners who grow poppy, it seems the cheapest solution would be to compensate them by buying the crop at the price they get. They don’t want to grow poppy but it’s the cash crop that produces the best income and given the abject poverty of the country, they don’t think they have too many options.

I really don’t think it would be a problem. The land owners understand the issue and want to co-operate but they need the money – give them a viable alternative (an export market for other produce at comparable margins) and, it seems, they’d grab it with both hands. After the Taliban have gone, obviously.

Um… Am I missing something here? Some connection?

-Afghanistan is poor, and people are starving.

-They grow opium poppies, predominantly to earn money with which to buy food.

-We need to give them something to grow besides opium.

-Do you see where I’m going with this?

Okay, granted they aren’t going to convert to a self-sufficient agrarian society overnight, or even in just one season… But if we set 'em up with some bean and corn crops- perhaps a special breed made for the conditions- possibly some rice if sufficient water supplies can be had, wheat and grains…

Sure, maybe the soldiers and “ruling” class won’t go for it, but I’d bet mom and pop dirtfarmer would welcome the chance for a littel extra self-sufficiency.

I’d really like to get a horticulturalist in here. IIRC, there are many problems with agriculture in Afghanistan (including the relatively small area available to most farmers to work, not to mention the climatic conditions) which mean that “sustainable agriculture” isn’t simply a matter of replacing a high value, high yield crop with a low value, low yield one.

We’re probably looking at a decade long process which is dependant on political stability and subtantial amounts of continuing foreign aid; possibly even some kind of tariff which guarantees Afghanis growing food crops a price similar to that which they would have received for opium for a period of some years.

Presumably, we would seek to encourage the establishment of some basic manufacturing industries in Afghanistan as well.

Of course, I did overlook something. Namely, that it is hardly necessary to bomb the bejeezus out of them. Thanks, M Gibson and others, for pointing it out. I’m a little ashamed of not having thought of a peaceful solution myself. I suppose I was thinking that there’s very little chance of corruption if you torch them.

Anyway, so how about my second set of questions? Why was it used as a reason for military action (specifically by Blair) if the UN has visually confirmed that poppy farming is no longer a real problem in Afghanistan?

And would Al Qaeda really have allowed a big piece of their livelihood go out the window without having a backup somewhere?

I saw a video this very evening filmed by a freelancer on behalf of the BBC back in February this year – one end of the valley (in view) to the other was just poppy. As I understand it, the commission the Taliban takes is about their only source of productive income.

Maybe the UN got given the alternative guided tour - it’s a bloody big country.

Here’s a link to quite a lot of articles relating to Afghanistan, the Taliban, and opium production. Media Awareness Project. You’ll notice that several of the articles express the fear/belief that the Taliban will lift the prohibition on opium production in response to US military action. Check artlicle 19, which includes a statement from UN officials regarding this possibility.

I’ve located a map of opium production density in Afghanistan and am trying to locate a map which shows the suitability of various parts of Afghanistan for conventional agricultural production.

Understood, and the DEA website goes into this a little. UD government estimates are based on a (hopefully random) sample from satellite images of the country.

I suppose it’s possible that the poppies were simply not where we were looking, either by accident or design, but it seems unlikely. It sounds to me like somebody, somewhere, is having the wool pulled over his or her eyes.

US government. Sorry.

I saw a headline in the NY Times saying that the Northern Alliance (the guys we’re working with) are the primary benefactors of the Afghan poppy fields.

I didn’t think napalm was being produced anymore, maybe I’m wrong.


Don’t be fooled into thinking that destroying crops is any kind of peaceful solution. Those farmers who depend on profits from the poppy fields will experience a tough time should their crops be burned to the ground. Taking away their livlihood could result in starvation and death. I just want to point out that it wasn’t peaceful.

As for helping them plant other crops that was just a very simplistic plan on my part. There is a reason they grow poppy instead of other crops. Poppy is profitable while other crops probably aren’t. The same situation can be found in the mountain regions of Columbia. We tried getting them to plant other crops with little success because farmers couldn’t make a profit on anything but coca leaves.

  1. Infrastructure- We have things like roads which make it easy to transport food grown in Iowa all the way to New York City, Los Angeles, or Germany for a fairly cheap price and yet remain profitable. (Most years, some years crops just aren’t profitable no matter what.) So far as I know Afghanistan has no efficent way of transporting their crops.

  2. Food drops- In our country farmers who grow food aren’t generally undermined by humanitarian efforts. Why grow grain when someone is going to dump it on your front porch for free? This isn’t a dig at food drops just a sad fact that in some areas people aren’t motivated to grow certain crops when they get staples for free. In conjunction with food drops there needs to be a plan to help them become self sufficent. Teaching them to fish and all that jazz.


In the United States in rural areas the Sheriff’s Departments as a matter of routine fly over fields with helicopters and keep an eye out for marijuana fields. They catch quite a few people but every year many people successful grow and sell their cash crop. I imagine they’ve discovered ways of hiding their fields from inspectors. The UN is hardly infallible.

I would imagine they have other sources of income but perhaps not so lucrative as opium trade.