How to solve Afghanistan's opium crisis
The United Nations reported on Monday that there had been a “frightening” explosion in opium production in Afghanistan with Helmand province, where Britain has 7 000 troops deployed, leading the way. A record crop means that the country now accounts for 93% of the world’s supply and the situation is getting worse daily despite billions being spent to eradicate the trade since 2001.
Here the Guardian asks experts in the field what can be done to bring production of the drug to an end.
Chris Alexander: Deputy special representative of the UN secretary general to Afghanistan
The report is astonishingly downbeat and rightly so.
But it does point to some solutions.
This year we have doubled the number of poppy free provinces from six to 13. The incentives for others to follow suit must be massively strengthened. We need structured investments in governance, law enforcement, agriculture and infrastructure.
The next step is for the government of Afghanistan and donors to get serious about removing known traffickers from positions of responsibility. This does not require trials and conviction; it can be done on the basis of administrative responsibilities. Everyone in the government from President Karzai down knows this has to be done ... They know who these people are and, with the right support from the international community, can take action.
Thirdly our counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency strategies need to be much more closely linked. Drug trafficking is benefiting from the muddy waters created by the Taliban in the southern provinces where most of the poppy is being grown. The Taliban have an interest in preventing rule of law and governance from emerging. Those who insist on making an alliance with them should be treated with the same seriousness.
On legalisation, we have real questions about the credibility of that proposal. You cannot legalise something in the absence of the rule of law. Legalisation would merely add a notionally legalised component of production.
Joanna Nathan: International Crisis Group analyst
The crucial place to start is at the top because you get much more bang for your buck. Targeting poor farmers means less overall effect and causes enormous discontent when they can see the hypocrisy of government and local administration officials brazenly flaunting their drugs wealth. A culture of impunity has been allowed to flourish which has been a corrupting influence on the new state institutions as well as fuelling the insurgency. This means some officials have an interest in keeping the countryside lawless and facilitating alliances with the Taliban. That is scary.
Aerial eradication of poppies is not the solution. While some ground-based manual eradication is important as a stick, to discourage particularly new growers, it hits the poorest hardest. Aerial eradication can be too indiscriminate and would enrage a large sector of the population possibly driving them into the arms of the insurgents. On the other hand the proposal to license opium for medicinal use is unfeasible at this stage. Most of the drugs grown in Afghanistan are in Helmand which they haven’t been able to stop when it is completely illegal. How would you then insert a massive licensing bureaucracy there and stop those who continue to grow for the black market? The price differentials would be so large there would be no incentive to grow for a licensed market.
Norine Macdonald: The Senlis Council
The international community is spending millions of dollars on flawed strategies. Poppy crop eradication was reinforced this year but in the current environment of rural poverty and lack of sustainable alternatives, eradication is wholly ineffective. The crisis is a problem of economic development. Farmers are cultivating poppy because there are no profitable alternatives. In such an environment, crop eradication puts the future of Afghanistan and the entire region in jeopardy.
Opium is the raw material for morphine and other essential medicines. To start tackling the economic nature of the crisis, we presented in June a village-based Poppy for Medicine model whose crux is the production of painkilling medicines. Such a programme would allow farming communities to produce morphine locally, bringing added value to the villages and providing rural communities with viable economic opportunities. This would trigger alternative livelihood programmes, foster rural development and generate economic diversification.
The Senlis Council wants international support for our request to run scientific Poppy for Medicine pilot projects in the next planting season. The alarming UN figures should be reason enough to try a different approach, tailored to the realities of Afghanistan in terms of security and development.
The Senlis Council is a security and development policy group.
Daoud Sultanzoi: MP for Ghazni province
A lot could have been done earlier but was not. Now the situation has reached the point where we are in a vicious circle. Drugs, bad management, rule of law, poverty, terrorism and weak government—all of these things have haunted us over the past six years. The international community is pouring billions of dollars, at least on paper, into Afghanistan. But our government is weak and there is corruption at every level. If the foreign friends are not involved in corruption themselves, then they are failing to ensure accountability inside the government. So they are also responsible.
There is so much waste and so little coordination. The foreigners come here for just one year and call themselves experts. They go on vacation 10 times, draw fat salaries and conduct themselves one inch lower than the clouds. They are not in touch with the real problems of the country; they become their own problem. We could start to resolve this with rule of law and good governance. The international community should have been urged to coordinate with us. We should have revamped our agricultural industry to offset the need for cultivating poppy. I am not hopeless about drugs but I sense hopelessness among many people across the country.
Barnett Rubin: Centre for International Cooperation, New York University
The UN report is about cultivation, not the entire Afghan drug economy. So it doesn’t have a lot about trafficking or heroin refining, which are extremely important. The most important people are those in high-level positions who are given money but are not involved in drugs themselves and therefore have deniability. They are getting political contributions so certain trucks aren’t searched or certain people appointed to key positions. The point about the northern provinces being opium-free is correct, but there is still a lot of trafficking there and leaders are making plenty of money from the trade.
Eradication was only done in Thailand 10 years after starting alternative development. In Colombia success was due to building up the police and state structures. If you attempt massive eradication in Afghanistan while the state is so weak and there are no alternative livelihoods people will simply not allow the government into the area.
There’s a value chain in the drug business and you have to start at the high end. Concentrate your limited forces where the value is and then you have to win over the peasantry. You have to give aid to provinces that eliminate or reduce poppy. That’s a good idea, but they’re just starting it now. And people don’t consider alternative livelihoods just because the US has started a programme. If they are switching to growing fruit trees it can take a few years to get them established. We have done a poor job on eradication but an even worse one with alternative livelihoods. It’s outrageous to accuse Afghan farmers of being greedy. Controlled buyback may be possible in a period of transition, but it’s not a silver bullet.
Senior Nato official
Nato, under pressure to take a more aggressive role, says publicly that its Isaf mission in Afghanistan does not include counter-narcotics but operates in support of the Afghan government. Alliance sources privately blame widespread corruption for hobbling Kabul’s efforts. But the key, they insist, is security.
“The more lawless the area the bigger the drug production, so though we’ve had an explosion of poppy production in Helmand, the more orderly areas are now producing less,” says one senior figure.
“If you can bring law and order poppy is a problem you can start to grapple with. The Senlis argument that if you buy up the crop everything will be OK is misleading. The crop in Helmand has already quadrupled in a few years. If poppy becomes legal then people will stop growing other crops and start to grow poppy instead. Also illegal poppy is always going to sell for more than a legal crop. And anyway, why would the Taliban let people switch? This is about power and control: you are challenging their authority in another way. They’ll tell the farmers: sell poppy to the government and we’ll kill you or rape your daughters; sell to us and we won’t.” - Guardian Unlimited Â