Source: The Scotsman (UK)
8 January 2008
By Paul Burton, head of policy analysis for the Senlis Council
Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, stood up before a packed House of
Commons to outline his government’s new approach to Afghanistan. This
eagerly anticipated statement would, it was believed, herald a fresh
approach to the country’s opium problem.
Unfortunately, the reality failed to match the pre-speech optimism. In
fact, of an eight-page speech, counter-narcotics warranted a mere two
paragraphs on page seven – apparently the issue came as an unwelcome
afterthought that deserved little more than an obligatory mention.
The government’s abject failure to outline any fresh strategy on this
critical issue is staggering. After all, the endemic drugs crisis lies
at the nexus of development and security in the country.
As counter-narcotics challenges facing Afghan and international forces
in southern provinces intensify, so security and overall reconstruction
efforts become irreconcilable. The remarkable job being undertaken by
the British military in southern Afghanistan is severely undermined by a
paucity of creative policy in the area of counter-narcotics. Ongoing
failure to address the illicit drugs trade is fuelling insurgent
activities throughout the country.
The apparent paralysis that affects the government on this issue is not
entirely of its own construction. A small coterie of functionaries
within the US state department continues to exercise a disproportionate
level of influence over counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan.
This sub department, called the bureau of international narcotics and
law enforcement affairs (INL), is tasked to “to reduce the entry of
illegal drugs into the United States”. And the best way to do this?
Blanket, indiscriminate destruction. Because, let’s not forget that
drugs are inherently evil, and anyone that thinks otherwise should head
to the west coast and spark up a joint.
The INL, and hence the US government, advocate aerial chemical spraying
of poppy crops throughout Afghanistan. It is to the eternal credit of
the Karzai government that they have not allowed this to happen in
Afghanistan, but can their resolve withstand record increases in opium
Washington’s evidence for the “success” of aggressive eradication comes
from Colombia where, since the 1990s, coca has been chemically sprayed
at increasing rates. This policy facilitated a 20-year-high coca harvest
in 2006, has destroyed rural livelihoods, prompted mass displacement and
laid the groundwork for chronic instability.
The detrimental impact of widespread poppy eradication would be even
more pronounced in Afghanistan. In the absence of immediate alternative
livelihoods and large-scale employment programmes, aggressive
eradication operations reinforce farmers’ economic vulnerability and
exacerbate poverty. Even more concerning for the international
community, such policies create a space within which the Taleban can
capitalise upon public disillusionment.
The US and UK have also indicated a desire to “decapitate” the drug
industry, capturing key drug barons and holding high-profile show
trials. In the absence of any clear definition of success in
Afghanistan, Washington calculates that hauling a big boy in front of
the world’s media would represent further evidence of their progress in
the country. This neat solution fails to account for the fact that
corruption is endemic throughout all levels of the Afghan government. A
number of high-profile national and regional politicians have become
fabulously wealthy off the back of the country’s opium. This is a hydra
that cannot be defeated by traditional law-enforcement measures alone.
Indeed, law enforcement is a core part of the problem, as the Afghan
National Police are ill– disciplined, poorly-trained and eminently
corruptible. A lack of clarity regarding their core purpose has enabled
them to continue with corrupt activity with minimal scrutiny.
It is clear that a fresh policy approach is desperately needed. Most
notably, a development-based approach that recognises the opium poppy as
a potential economic resource for Afghanistan must be adopted. A
village-based Poppy for Medicine campaign, advocating licensed poppy
cultivation for medicinal purposes, maximises Afghanistan’s tradition of
strong local control systems and provides the necessary leverage for
economic diversification. Crucially, Poppy for Medicine would allow the
central government and the international community to engage positively
with rural communities and help break the ties and dependency on the
illegal drugs market and the Taleban.
The UK should truly take the leadership on counter-narcotics efforts and
endorse the implementation of Poppy for Medicine pilot projects in
Helmand province in order to test the controllability and economic
effectiveness of this counter-narcotics initiative.
Successful counter-narcotics interventions require not only the
necessary economic infrastructure but, more importantly, institutions of
formal governance and mechanisms of social protection.
In the absence of immediate viable economic alternatives and with the
authority of the central government seen to be shrinking visibly in
favour of anti-government forces and narco-traffickers, forced
eradication proves a disastrous policy in the fragile Afghanistan.
Aggressive chemical spraying eradication will not only poison the land
but, more importantly, poison the relationship with the Afghan people.
Keeping to the same aggressive counter-narcotics policies will prove
catastrophic for both the Afghan government and the UK’s mission in