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Undermining Afghanistan's
opium business



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

Comments directly to

February 3, 2009

LONDON - Quite right - the Obama administration is gearing up to pressure the Europeans to put more men in boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Quite right - the Europeans don't want to engage in a war of attrition à la Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s or as the U.S. in Vietnam a decade and a half before. There is nothing worse than having to pull out with your tail between your legs and confront the electorate for thousands of needless deaths of your brave young.

The answer to this paradox is that the Europeans, using their nouse as well as their soldiers, should confront the issue of the Afghanistan poppy crop, the one that is 90% responsible for all the heroin sold in Europe and the one that funds over 80% of Taliban activity.

This brings me to a memorable conversation I had in Islamabad with President/General Pervez Musharraf two years' ago. (It was published in Prospect Magazine, London, in March 2007.) He suggested that the West should introduce a common agricultural policy for Afghan's poppies - in other words to do as both the EU and the U.S. do with certain agricultural crops - buy it up with government money. ”Buying the crop is an idea one could explore”, he told me, in answer to what I had a bit nervously thought was a provocative question, ”Pakistan doesn't have the money for it. We would need help from the U.S. or the UN. But we could buy up the whole crop and destroy it. In that way the poor growers would not suffer.”

Buying the Afghan poppy crop was first suggested by the International Council on Security and Development. The idea would solve two problems in one blow. First it would prevent - the often unwilling - opium farmers being driven into the arms of the Taliban, for protection and as willing buyers and traffickers. Second, its crop could help the world, especially the poorer parts in Asia and Africa, with their chronic shortage of medical opiates. Millions die each work in excruciating pain for want to relief. Death is bad enough, but to die in extreme agony is the most frightening thing a human being can face. India, Australia and Turkey, the latter encouraged by the Americans since 1974, are the only countries allowed to grow poppies under the supervisory authority of the World Health Organisation. Western countries buy most of it.

Needless to say, there are the many practical problems that appear to confront this idea. If the price were set too high, it might encourage even more farmers to grow opium poppies. Besides, however high the price, it is said by some UN agricultural economists, the traffickers would simply outbid the government, safe in the knowledge that a majority of recipients, the addicts, would foot the bill. And if the price were not high enough, the farmers would go on selling at least some of the crop on the black market. Even if a premium did have to be paid it would still be cheaper than the cost of new troops and an escalation of the war.

But this overlooks human nature, especially in an earnest Islamic nation where everyone knows - including the once anti-drug Taliban - that narcotics are strongly condemned by traditional Islamic teaching. Only desperation has driven most farmers to opium. All things considered they would rather sell to a government agency at, say, today's going price, especially when they know that their product was going to help people in pain.

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Sartaj Aziz, a renowned agricultural expert and also a former agriculture and finance minister of Pakistan, wrote to Prospect to say he liked the idea and it should be tried out on an experimental basis in one of Afghanistan's poppy areas.

I rehearsed many of these issues with Musharraf and his response was ”Look, let's analyse it, let's cost it and see if it is practical.” According to an article in last week's New York Times by Bernd Debusmann, a forthcoming paper by Professor James Nathan, a former State Department official, says the total cost of such a program might go as high as $2.5 billion each year - not that much when compared with the $200 billion that the U.S. has already spent on the war (and that doesn't count NATO's contribution).

Such a policy would be far more effective in undermining both the Taliban and Al Qaeda than any number of new troops sent in for combat. But let some of the troops arrive to help with the buying up of the crop, to make sure there are no secret, unofficial, diversions and to police the districts declared as in compliance.

President Barack Obama has called for new ideas on the world's seeming intractable problems. Well here's one.

Copyright © 2008 Jonathan Power


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Jonathan Power 2007 Book
Conundrums of Humanity
The Quest for Global Justice

“Conundrums of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging from “Can we diminish War?” to “How far and fast can we push forward the frontiers of Human Rights?” to “Will China dominate the century?”
The answers to these questions, the author believes, growing out of his long experience as a foreign correspondent and columnist for the International Herald Tribune, are largely positive ones, despite the hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.

William Pfaff, September 17, 2007
Jonathan Power's book "Conundrums" - A Review
"His is a powerful and comprehensive statement of ways to make the world better.
Is that worth the Nobel Prize?
I say, why not?"


Jonathan Power's 2001 book

Like Water on Stone
The Story of Amnesty International

Follow this link to read about - and order - Jonathan Power's book written for the 40th Anniversary of Amnesty International



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