Pubdate: Tue, 08 Jan 2008
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: 2008 The Scotsman Publications Ltd
Author: Paul Burton
Note: Paul Burton is head of policy analysis for the Senlis Council.


On 12 December, 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 

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 production?

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 controllabilit

y 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 Afghanistan.

* Paul Burton is head of policy analysis for the Senlis Council.
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MAP posted-by: Keith Brilhart