Feature: Afghanistan Throws Out Group Urging Legal Opium -- Not

The Senlis Council, the European development and security nonprofit that has proposed diverting Afghanistan's booming black market opium crop into the legal medicinal market to address a global shortage of pain meds, is to be thrown out of the country. At least that's what a handful of press stories this week reported. But despite the reports, Senlis isn't going anywhere, the group told Drug War Chronicle.

The first story appeared on Sunday, when the Pajhwok Afghan News reported on a Kabul press conference that same day with Afghan Deputy Interior Minister Lt. Gen. Daud Daud. "In an order, Interior Minister has banned activities of Senlis Council," Pajhwok quoted Daud Daud as saying. "Activities of the Senlis Council are not useful for our country; its work has created complex problems for us." Senlis activities were "encouraging" farmers to grow more opium, he complained.

2005 Senlis conference in Kabul, 2005 (photo by Drug War Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
By Monday, the BBC was echoing Pajhwok with a story headlined "Drugs Group in Afghan Exit Order." The BBC reported that a recent report from the group criticizing the Afghan government for the increase in opium production had increased tensions among Afghan politicians. Like Pajhwok, the BBC noted that the Senlis Council spokesman in Afghanistan denied its offices had been ordered closed, but that's not how either press organ headlined the story.

By Tuesday, Iran's Fars News Agency was reporting the same story, but with a twist. According to Fars, Iranian anti-drug officials were claiming credit for the supposed ouster of the Senlis Council. The news agency reported that Fada Hosein Maleki, head of the Iranian anti-drug directorate, was claiming Teheran had convinced the Karzai government to throw out the group. "We stated our direct and strong opposition to the idea right from the beginning, while we maintained our extensive consultations with Afghan officials, which fortunately resulted in the closure of the said institute in Afghanistan," Maleki claimed.

In a revealing look an Iranian journalism, Fars reported: "Fada Hosein Maleki further noted the activities of the French Institute 'Senseless' which pursued to legalize poppy farming in Afghanistan as well as the grave consequences that such an action could have for Iran if it was approved," without bothering to clarify whether Maleki or the news agency itself had decided to make the insulting pun on the group's name.

In the past two years, the Senlis Council has opened offices in Afghanistan, organized last October's Kabul conference on licensing part of the opium crop as part of the licit medicinal opiate industry, published serious research on numerous aspects of the Afghan opium conundrum, started a drug treatment program with the Italian Red Cross and Afghan Red Crescent, and been highly critical of the US and NATO approach to Afghanistan. Its opium licensing proposal in particular, has raised hackles among some Western government and some sectors of the Afghan government.

Afghanistan's Upper House (Meshano Jirga) had earlier demanded that Senlis be banned. After Lt. Gen. Daud Daud's press conference, other Afghan officials supported the decision, with Lt. Gen Kudai Dad telling Pajhwok that Senlis was encouraging opium farmers to believe that their crops may be legalized.

But according to Senlis there is less to this story than meets the eye. "The Senlis Council has not been banned from its activities in Afghanistan," said Jane Francis, Paris-based communications director for the group. "The Council received a letter from the Afghan Ministry of Interior saying that we should not engage in activities 'contrary to the constitution of Afghanistan'. Senlis is a research institution and think tank and this regard has never done anything unconstitutional in Afghanistan," she told Drug War Chronicle Thursday.

Advocating for the legalization of the opium crop through a scheme to license it for sale in licit medicinal markets is not mentioned in the Afghan Constitution. Article 34 (Chapter 2, Article 13), however, says that "freedom of speech is inviolable."

The Senlis Council's Francis also took issue with Lt. Gen. Daud Daud's comments blaming it for the increase in the poppy crop, which has increased to an all-time high 6100 tons of opium this year. "The Senlis Council is in no way responsible for the increase in poppy cultivation," she said. "Poppy cultivation has been on the increase since the arrival of the international community in Afghanistan. This year's increase is just a continuation of this situation. Poppy cultivation has increased because the people are getting poorer and poorer and in many areas it is the only way to survive. Ironically, the US-led crop eradication counter-narcotics strategy has contributed to this poverty and has created an increased need to grow poppy -- people need to compensate for the money they have lost due to their crops being eradicated, so they grow it again -- and more of it."

With the Taliban on the rise, a bumper opium crop, and still no reliable electricity in the capital five years after the US invaded, it may be that Afghan politicians are looking for a scapegoat -- and talking a slightly bigger game than they can deliver. The Interior Ministry sends what can only be called a warning letter to Senlis, but his deputy overstates what it means, the local press reports his remarks, the international press picks it up, and a mistaken story is born. It seems clear that if Afghan authorities want a scapegoat for the status quo, they would do better looking in the mirror than pointing the finger at a smart European nonprofit with innovative approaches to the opium conundrum.

Read Phil Smith's 2005 Afghanistan journey blog here.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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