The Ottawa Citizen (Canada)
January 23, 2008
By: Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen
So it’s official. Afghanistan’s vast fields of opium poppy will soon be
entirely wiped out. No more opium and heroin. Just melons and happy
farmers, as far as the eye can see.
Granted, the reader may have heard otherwise. The latest opium crop was
the biggest ever, the headlines reported. Ninety per cent of the world’s
heroin supply comes from Afghanistan. Top officials from NATO commanders
to President Hamid Karzai have said the illicit drug trade is so
enormous and corrosive that it is a bigger threat to the future of
Afghanistan than the Taliban.
But that can’t be true. Just look at the report of the Independent Panel
on Canada’s Future Role in Afghanistan.
Released yesterday, the report acknowledges that opium poppy is “a
complicating factor.” But in its 94 pages, it devotes precisely one
paragraph to the issue.
One can only conclude that John Manley’s esteemed panel believes the
drug trade isn’t a terribly important part of the equation in
Afghanistan. But no rational person could possibly believe this – unless
the trade has vanished like the morning dew. So that must be the case. QED.
Amazingly, this stunning victory in the war on drugs was predicted. In
fact, it is right on schedule.
In 1998, the United Nations convened a massive special session at which
all the nations of the world committed to “eliminating or significantly
reducing the illicit cultivation of the coca bush, the cannabis plant,
and the opium poppy by the year 2008.” Well, 2008 just started and the
drug trade has been wiped out. Happy new year.
OK, that’s one way to explain the startling lack of attention given to
the opium trade by the Manley report. Here’s another:
Those who wish to bring peace and development to Afghanistan face an
insoluble dilemma. On the one hand, the poppy industry is the country’s
largest. Afghanistan may be horribly poor now, but removing the income
generated by the poppy industry would make vast numbers of very poor
people very much poorer. This is why most NATO officers are adamantly
opposed to taking aggressive action against poppy production: It would
drive every small farmer, field hand and trader into the waiting arms of
It would also be futile. Any reduction in the poppy crop would cause
prices to rise along the entire supply chain – from farm field to street
retailer. Rising prices would draw farmers and traffickers back into the
The tempting conclusion is that we should simply turn a blind eye. But
that’s not an option, either. The money the Taliban make “taxing”
farmers and traffickers pays for wages, weapons and bombs. And the
industry is a fountainhead of corruption – corruption that makes
improved governance and development difficult or impossible.
“Military victories will count for little unless the Afghan government,
with the help of others, can improve governance and provide better
living conditions for the Afghan people,” the Manley report correctly
noted. But how can the Afghan government do that? It’s impossible if it
doesn’t tackle the opium industry. And if it does, the government will
turn the people against it.
It’s a heck of a dilemma. What’s the Manley report got to say about it?
Nothing, really. “Coherent counter-narcotics strategies need to be
adopted by all relevant authorities,” it says without noting what those
mysterious strategies might be.
There should also be “effective economic provisions to induce would-be
poppy farmers and middlemen to prefer and find alternative lines of
work.” The report also suggests that “a limited poppy-for-medicine
project might be worth pursuing.”
The objections to these progressive-sounding ideas are obvious. First,
the profitability gap between poppy and legal crops is enormous, so
economic incentives to encourage farmers and middlemen to switch would
have to be equally enormous. Experience elsewhere suggests they usually
aren’t big enough to do the job. But even if they are, they are
self-defeating: If farmers start abandoning poppy in substantial
numbers, poppy prices will rise and those rising prices will eventually
drag farmers right back in.
Poppy-for-medicine is a mistake for the same reason: If substantial
quantities of poppy are diverted from the illegal trade to the legal
market, prices for black-market poppy will rise and illegal production
will respond accordingly. The laws of economics will not be denied.
So how does the Manley report respond to these objections? It doesn’t.
It avoids serious discussion of the opium problem and in that way it
dodges the dilemma at the very heart of the matter.
To use a hackneyed phrase, the Manley report is inside-the-box thinking.
Here, the box is the criminalization of opium poppy.
It was criminalization that turned a crop that has been grown peacefully
in central Asia since time immemorial into a source of instability and
corruption. It was criminalization that helped create the dilemma
Afghanistan finds itself in now.
But the Manley report doesn’t consider that criminalization is a policy
choice made almost a century ago by foolish people who had no idea what
hell they were unleashing. It treats criminalization as a law of nature,
like gravity – something that has always existed and always will. And
that’s even more foolish than the decision to criminalize in the first
We choose our drug policies. And the choice of criminalization has
created in insoluble dilemma in Afghanistan – a dilemma that is killing
There are alternatives. Remember the 2008 deadline for wiping out the
global drug trade? This year, the UN will review the experience of the
last decade and discuss the way forward. Of course, the UN will never
admit its policies have failed spectacularly. In fact, it now claims
that the goal set in 1998 was not “eliminating or significantly
reducing” production, but rather to achieve “significant and measurable
results” in drug control. That’s a lie, but moving the goalposts is very
much in the interests of those whose salaries depend on keeping the
The Manley report could have identified the Afghan dilemma squarely. It
could have shown how international drug policy helped create that
dilemma. It could have called on the Canadian government to work with
European governments and others disenchanted with the war on drugs to
turn the UN’s 2008 review into a serious re-examination of drug policy
from top to bottom.
It could have challenged us all to think.
But it didn’t. It just hunkered down in that damned old box and closed