Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Losing the opium war

Afghanistan is set to produce record volumes of opium this year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Which is some achievement, considering the country has effectively been under the control of the United States and Britain since 2001. Already, Afghanistan produces 92% of the world’s supply following a doubling of poppy growing between 2005 and 2006. Production accounts for one-third of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and is the mainstay of large numbers of farmers. So the official "war on drugs" is about as effective as that other "war", the one on terror that spurred the invasion of Afghanistan and the ousting of the Taliban government. The Taliban, it will be recalled, had eliminated poppy production, which is used to make heroin for sale around the world. Their overthrow was supposed to lead to a new dawn for Afghanistan. Instead, it has produced another round of foreign occupation, widespread corruption and, of course, the return of the Taliban in key areas, including those where poppies are grown.

The Afghan government and UN officials advocate the eradication of poppy fields as the crude solution. "This year we have given a strict message to farmers," stated Zemarai Bashari, a spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Interior. "We will destroy all poppy fields." About 550 policemen have been sent to Helmand and neighbouring provinces, including Kandahar, where they have successfully eradicated more than 3,000 hectares of poppy fields. That figures looks minuscule compared with the 172,600 hectares that experts believe were under cultivation last year. Government forces and local poppy farmers who have yet to be provided with alternative sources of income frequently come to blows. Last month, clashes between eradication forces and local farmers in Nangarhar province, in the east, killed one and wounded three. "They [the eradication police] destroyed my small field only because I did not have money to bribe them," Shahzada, a farmer in Helmand, complained. "For those who know officials or have the means to bribe them, their fields remain safe."

Aid agencies have criticised the government's strategy for being ineffective and incompatible with the realities of impoverished Afghans. "This is a strategy promoted by the US and the UK," asserted Gulalai Momand, deputy country manager for the Paris-based Senlis Council, a policy and development group, which recommends licensing poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. "It alienates Afghan farmers from their government." The government has imposed restrictions on the council's activities in the country, warning the organisation not to advocate authorised poppy cultivation, which the council says could be used for legitimate medical purposes. Yet in the absence of tangible alternative livelihoods that could realistically meet the basic needs of destitute Afghan farmers, explained Momand, "it is counter-productive to emphasise solely eradication and a narrow-minded strategy". Meanwhile, American forces have killed at least 18 civilians in the last couple days in Afghanistan. In one incident US Marines went on the rampage after a car bomb near the eastern city of Jalalabad. Witnesses say American soldiers fired indiscriminately into groups of Afghan cars and pedestrians as they tried to escape the area. Protests erupted almost immediately after the attack. Hundreds of demonstrators reportedly blocked off key roads as they chanted anti-American and anti-western slogans. Just as in Iraq, the military adventure in Afghanistan brings no benefit to the local people at all. For that to happen, we need quite different kinds of governments in Washington and London, ones that would provide technical and financial support in a totally unconditional fashion and delivered without bayonets.

Paul Feldman, communications editor

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In the end, unfortunately, the only answer for me is to to legalise drugs (like prostitution has been in some countries) the world over and educate of the dangers.
As for Afghanistan,The US and UK adventure is totally floored.
As for opium - farmers (people) have to survive some how, although heroin can be no solution long term, do they really have a choice if a marketplace is in place going back quite sometime?