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Editorial: It's Time to Get Real About Opium in Afghanistan

David Borden, Executive Director, 7/28/06

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/borden12.jpg
David Borden
I wouldn't say that many countries are truly rational about drug policy yet, but some of them have more people, in more prominent positions, who have gotten there. When they do, it tends to transcend traditional political boundaries -- for example, Conservative party leader David Cameron in Great Britain, who suggested legalization during the run-up to his selection for the post, and others in his party who asked him this week to support a licensing scheme for Afghan opium as opposed to the current regime of total prohibition and sporadic and ineffective eradication efforts.

What some of the Tories are saying is that it's unrealistic to think we can be effective against an industry that makes up 50% of the struggling nation's economy, that when eradication efforts happen, they drive farmers into the Taliban's corner and seem correlated with outbreaks of violence, that instituting a legal opium crop (which could be used and is actually somewhat needed for the legal medical market) would reduce the illicit market and deal a blow to evil-doers by bringing the money above-board and reducing their access to it.

Given the substantial threats existing to security and the role movements operating from Afghanistan have played in some of them, I vote for realism. These Brits are right -- trying to pull the plug on Afghanistan's opium trade is a truly insane idea -- we would only find out how insane if we were actually to succeed. The war against drugs is a war that cannot be won -- too many people are determined to take them and are willing to pay the money that it takes to get them.

In that sense, the bad guys will always have more resources to work with then the good guys. In a larger sense, the lines dividing the bad guys from the good guys are more than a little blurred, when the enemy apparently include destitute third-world farmers who only want to save their families from starving, and ordinary American and European citizens who only want to be left alone to indulge in their pastimes in private.

Cameron, of course, is from the other side of the aisle as current British prime minister Tony Blair, and even if the Conservatives were in power, they doubtless don't all support his views about legalization. Doing something about it is even harder still than that. And of course the Afghans get to have some say in what happens in their country too, and they are not all on board even with the moderate proposal of licensing for the medical supply. (Our editor Phil Smith found that out when he attended last September's conference in Kabul on the idea.)

Still, you have to start somewhere, and a the top political leaders in a nation that is the US's closest ally seems as good a place as any. A desperate country like Afghanistan that urgently needs stability and to reduce criminality also would seem a worthy place, even more so in light of our own related interests there. It's time to get real about opium in Afghanistan.

Europe: British Conservatives Call For Legal, Licensed Afghan Opium Production As Troop Toll Mounts

Using the occasion of a visit to Afghanistan this week by Conservative Party leader David Cameron, several leading Tory Members of Parliament urged him to push for legal, licensed opium production in that war-torn country, The Guardian reported. The calls came as at least six British soldiers have been killed this summer battling a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan's southern opium-producing provinces and echo the position first elaborated last year by the Senlis Council, an international security and development group.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
In concert with the Americans, NATO forces have taken responsibility for security in Afghanistan's Taliban-friendly south, and now Tory MPs are complaining that the coalition's insistence on eradicating the opium crop is endangering the lives of British soldiers. With opium accounting for nearly half of the national economy, farmers and traffickers alike are fighting to save their livelihoods, and sometimes turning to the Taliban for protection.

"The poppy crops are the elephant in the room of the Afghan problem," Tory whip Tobias Ellwood told the Guardian. "We're in complete denial of the power that the crops have on the nation as a whole, and the tactics of eradication are simply not working. Last year we spent $600 million on eradication and all that resulted was the biggest-ever export of opium from the country."

Instead, Ellwood said, opium farming should be licensed, with the harvest being sold legally in the open. That would help farmers, address a global shortage of opioid pain medications, and limit the supply of opium to the black market, where, after being processed into heroin, much of it finds its way into the veins of European junkies. According to Ellwood, the licensed opium plan has the support of several Conservative MPs and senior military figures in Afghanistan.

Conservative leader Cameron has been open to outside-the-box thinking on drug policy issues. He has called for prescription heroin and even urged the United Nations to consider legalizing drugs.

The Guardian quoted one unidentified NGO worker who has traveled extensively in Helmand province as saying that eradication efforts were merely driving peasants to join the Taliban. "The better-off farmers pay local commanders bribes so they don't have to eradicate, but the others have their main source of income cut off," said the worker, who did not wish to be named because of the danger of being identified in southern Afghanistan. "Then the Taliban come to their villages and say, 'We will pay your son to work for us and give him weapons and food.' If you look at the timing of the eradication programs and the flare-ups of the violence, often it happens in the same week."

The NGO worker said Taliban members had been spotted walking the streets armed in broad daylight in Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gar, and that Arab fighters had been spotted within 10 miles of the capital. "We're pouring gas on the flames of the violence with this eradication campaign. By alienating the locals we're playing into a sophisticated political plan on the part of al-Qaida and the Taliban to destabilize southern Afghanistan. The political naivety of the international community in doing this is mind-boggling," the worker said.

Colombia to Aid in Afghan Drug War

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
Washington Times
URL: 
http://washingtontimes.com/national/20060725-110053-5562r.htm

Pressure Mounts on Karzai as Afghan Violence Surges

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
Reuters
URL: 
http://today.reuters.co.uk/news/newsArticle.aspx?type=worldNews&storyID=2006-07-23T053339Z_01_ISL42604_RTRUKOC_0_UK-AFGHAN-KARZAI.xml&archived=False

Rumsfeld Says Drug Trade Aids Afghan Insurgency

Publication/Source: 
New York Times
URL: 
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/07/10/world/asia/10cnd-rumsfeld.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

Fierce Clashes Around Afghan Opium Center

Location: 
United States
Publication/Source: 
Test Publication
URL: 
http://www.irishexaminer.com/breaking/story.asp?j=80627054&p=8x6z7356&n=80627434

drug war/terror war confusion in Afghanistan

The British online publication "Spiked" noted in a larger story, citing a March article in the Guardian, that there is confusion over whether NATO troops are fighting a "war on drugs" in Afghanistan" or a "war on terror." Philip Cunliff wrote:
[T]he British mission objective is further confused by the question of whether the British army is fighting a war on drugs or the war on terror. Former British defence secretary John Reid argued that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is "absolutely interlinked" with the war on terror (though in fact, it was the Americans who endorsed their local allies’ poppy cultivation after the Taliban curtailed it) (4). On the other hand, NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General James Jones, has said: "You won’t see NATO burning crops, but you will see us gather intelligence and support the national effort as best we can."
Reid is ignoring the obvious realities of the situation. The opium trade is only linked to terrorism (to the extent that is actually the case, probably non-zero but less than Reid claims) because opium and the drugs derived from it are illegal. Legalization would bring opium out of the underground economy and allow governments to regulate it -- if Afghanistan couldn't control the money flow to keep it out of the hands of Taliban and Al Qaeda and other violent organizations, consumer nations in Europe and the Americans could simply require the stuff be bought elsewhere. Instead, we have a no win situation in which fighting the poppy will alienate the populace whose help we need, in which wiping out the crops (an impossible task) would generate economic catastrophe, but leaving them aids our enemies and hinders the goal of attaining political instability for that troubled nation. There's a reason why the medical opium crop doesn't cause violence or help terrorists -- because it's legal. The Senlis Council has organized at least two conferences in Afghanistan to propose licensing the crop for that market.

Afghanistan Set to Have World's Largest Ever Opium Crop (Financial Times)

Location: 
Afghanistan
URL: 
http://www.ft.com/cms/s/cc6c18fc-0b56-11db-b97f-0000779e2340.html

DRCNet in Afghanistan

Location: 
Kabul
Afghanistan
Publication/Source: 
Drug War Chronicle
URL: 
http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/afghanistan/index.shtml

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