"Everyone Would Be Better Off if Afghan Farmers Grew Something Else."
Not necessarily. Alternative development -- sometimes called "alternative livelihoods" -- is the kinder, gentler complement to eradication. Both target farmers, the thinking goes, but one plants crops and bulldozes roads, while the other bulldozes crops and plants resentment. Even if alternative development doesn't meaningfully reduce worldwide drug cultivation -- and it doesn't -- at least the do-gooders do no harm, right?
Wrong. The Taliban tax opium not because the Quran opposes intoxicants; they tax opium because it is taxable. In the lawless stretches of Afghanistan, the Taliban, local warlords, corrupt officials, and anyone else with enough guns all extort "protection" payments from almost any activity undertaken in their zone of control -- including alternative-development projects. The Wall Street Journal reported last summer that half the electricity produced by a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded $100 million upgrade to a hydropower plant in Helmand province is effectively sold by the Taliban. Even if one dismisses such egregious examples, back-of-the-envelope calculations of the overall impact are not encouraging. Multiply the commonly acknowledged 10 to 20 percent extortion "tax" rate levied by the Taliban by the total international budget for alternative development in Afghanistan, and you get a revenue stream well in excess of what the Taliban is thought to derive from the opium trade.
No one doubts that development needs to be a major part of the agenda in Afghanistan, but there is a strong case to be made for using these programs as a reward for stabilized provinces -- not a means of winning over hostile ones.