Finally, an end to poppy eradication in Afghanistan

After years of wrongheaded “War on Drugs” policies in Afghanistan, the United States says it has changed. Richard Holbrooke, a highly experienced diplomat, now US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said “we’re going to phase out eradication” of heroin-producing poppies. This can only be good.

87% of the heroin bought in the world in 2004 was made from poppies grown in Afghanistan. (1) That number has climbed from 70% in the 1990s, a big drop in 2000 due to a ban on poppy farming by the Taliban (2), and a resurgence to as much as 90% today (3) (though figures vary).

Eradication efforts do indeed destroy some acreage of poppy farms, but they do not help reach any of the US’s goals. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime report that “the Taliban and other anti-government forces” earned between 50 and 70 million dollars from poppy production in 2008. (4) Antonio Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, says that the same people may also be hoarding poppy stocks, in order to decrease the amount available on the market and push up prices. (4) Moreover, spraying crops punishes the innocent farmers growing them. If Afghan farmers lose their crops to foreign invaders, who are they likely to turn to for protection? If more poppies are eradicated, the price of heroin goes up, the so-called insurgents make more money and gain more allies. Is it any wonder they are putting up such a fight?

In fact, President Barack’s focus is shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan precisely because it is becoming the more difficult of the two conflicts to win. Iraq has always been seen as the pointless, unnecessary war, the bad war, and the one most frequently designated a quagmire. The reality has changed as Iraq has become more stable and Afghanistan conflict has become to look intractable. Richard Holbrooke has been saying since he was sworn in as Special Representative that Afghanistan will be “much tougher than Iraq” (5), and since a year earlier that US counter-narcotic policy in Afghanistan “may be the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy”. (6) He also said that “Nato’s future is on the line”. He is surely right. More importantly, a collapse of NATO’s operations in Afghanistan could mean more violence in Central Asia, more radical Islamism and more suicide terrorism in America and Europe.

For now, let’s get back to drugs. There are alternatives to destroying poppies (though Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics might disagree (7)). Growing poppies could be considered an advantage rather than a scourge. The Senlis Council suggests using them to manufacture opiate-based, legal painkillers such as morphine. (8) Other countries, such as Turkey, grow poppies legally and sell opiates to the United States. Giving farmers a rich market for their crops would mean giving them a livelihood and delivering them from the Taliban. Decriminalising poppy production in Afghanistan will help the cause of NATO forces.

Spokespeople have used the words “phasing out” to explain their shift in policy away from spraying poppy fields. These words make it sound like a slow process that will not end overnight. Nevertheless, policy is moving in the right direction. An end to the eradication of poppies could be the turning point in the war for a democratic and stable Afghanistan.