In 2004, Afghanistan produced 4,200 tons of opium, 87 percent of the world's total supply. The revenue from the illegal trade was estimated at $2.8 billion, roughly two-thirds the amount Afghanistan receives in foreign aid. In 2005, the U.S. allocated about $774 million to the effort to eradicate poppy farming in Afghanistan. Is there a better way? The Senlis Council, an international drug-policy think tank, recently proposed a radical alternative: Legalize opium for medicinal purposes.
India is already licensed by the International Narcotics Control Board, an independent watchdog group that monitors the trade of illicit and medicinal drugs, to grow opium and produce generic pain medication for developing nations. Afghanistan could do the same. The cost of creating such a program has been estimated at only $600 million. Ideally, the farmers would get cash, the drug lords would get cut out, the developing world would get more pain-relief medicine, and the major demand for the global traffic in heroin could be drastically reduced.
It's a compelling strategy—accepting the reality on the ground rather than fighting it—and it's exactly how Greg operates. He doesn't get caught up in moral abstractions; he focuses on what works, no matter how tortured or contradictory.
SARHADD, ROUGHLY HALFWAY up the Wakhan Corridor, is at the end of the road. From here all travel would be by foot or horseback. We had 80 miles in front of us to reach Tajikistan.
On a cold, windy morning, Sarfraz, Doug, Teru, and I left Sarhadd with four packhorses and four Wakhi wranglers. For two days we hiked along the bottoms of immense canyons, in the shadows, jumping boulders, fording side streams, imagining Marco Polo doing the same thing. We climbed two small passes to escape the canyons and reach the upper Wakhan settlement of Langar and Khan Bibi's grim stone hut.
From Langar we walked to Bazai Gonbad, a Kirghiz burial ground consisting of a dozen domed, chalk-white mausoleums. Beyond Bazai Gonbad, the Wakhan widens dramatically. The valley is too high for farming—12,000 feet—hence the eastern Wakhan is inhabited primarily by Kirghiz nomads. In general the Kirghiz are wealthier and healthier than the Wakhi, although ever since the borders were closed in 1949, there has been a symbiotic relationship between the two peoples. The Wakhi need animals and the Kirghiz need grain, so they barter.
The Kirghiz are cowboys, and Sarfraz, a great rider himself, managed to get us saddle horses. Teru, the New Yorker, was the most natural cowboy among the Americans, followed by Doug, who is originally from New Jersey. I grew up in Wyoming working on ranches and can't ride a horse to save my life.
The upper Wakhan is one of the last refuges for at least three endangered species—the snow leopard, the Himalayan wolf, and the Marco Polo sheep. All are still hunted by the Kirghiz. (We saw wolfskin coats for sale on Chicken Street in Kabul and were told the pelts came from northeastern Afghanistan.) In a heavy-snow winter, the Kirghiz hunt snow leopards and wolves that prey on their sheep, and sometimes even on children; they hunt the sheep for food. But change is coming: Biologist George Schaller, vice president of science and exploration at the New York–based Wildlife Conservation Society, has been inventorying Marco Polo sheep in the area since the 1970s—most recently visiting in 2004 and 2005—and he's campaigning to make the entire region a protected international park.