Jack Merlin Watling, 13 June 2011.
LONDON (Guardian) - One of the aims of Isaf, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, is to "facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development." Sadly, however, actions often contradict aims and no clearer example of this could be given than UN policy towards Afghanistan's opium poppy crop. With the date of withdrawal set for 2014, the international community has to ask itself how it can leave Afghanistan with the best chance possible to create a civil society. Economic growth is a key component to that transition. The Afghan government needs to be able to contribute to the costs of its security forces and to the development of public infrastructure. Yet rather than cultivate one of Afghanistan's few national assets, its poppy crop is routinely burned.
Opium is a valuable resource. It is the key component of both morphine and codeine, two of our most effective and widely used painkillers. There is a global shortage of these painkillers. One has to ask then why the UNODC states its ambition is to make Afghanistan "become poppy-free in the near future". This aim is short-sighted and contradicts Isaf's mission statement.
At present opium production is illegal in Afghanistan, yet in 2007 the UNODC estimated that the trade there was worth 53% of the country's licit GDP. It was not Afghanistan that received this huge boost to its economy, however. The Taliban are directly responsible for smuggling the opium into Russia, Pakistan and Iran and so all that money went directly into funding and sustaining the insurgency, not in reducing its capacity and will to fight. Even with the UNODC claiming a 33-40% reduction in the size of the opium crop, this still puts billions of dollars into the insurgents' hands.
UN policy towards the opium crop damages the relationship between the security forces and Afghanistan's farmers, who are believed to make up 70% of the population. The price of opium is estimated at 17 times the price of wheat, which is the alternative crop that farmers are encouraged to grow. Wheat is also more vulnerable to disease and requires more water. For the farmers, when they see their government deny them a valuable source of income and see Isaf burn their hard labour, they resent it. It is hardly surprising that they choose to trade with the insurgents.
Outlawing the poppy crop denies the Afghan government a huge source of revenue and strips the Afghan people of a potential source of socio-economic development. Were the UN to legitimise cultivation of the opium poppy in Afghanistan, the trade would become open and taxable. The ability to raise tax through exports is a significant cash source for the Afghan government and the potential growth in the economy would be a considerable step towards self-sufficiency.
The people hurt by the UN's policy are not the Taliban but innocent farmers. If they grow the poppies their fields are burned. If they grow wheat, their fields are also burned – by the Taliban. Isaf's response to this has been to pay local warlords and militias to protect wheat and convoys.
Surely it makes more sense to encourage the production of opium poppies while providing a secure method of exporting it for morphine and codeine production. This would strip the Taliban of funding and stop the farmers being savaged by both sides.
Legitimising the opium poppy crop is an opportunity to bring Afghanistan together as a nation. If the people are to see centralisation and nationhood as beneficial then they need to see projects carried out by their own government without western involvement. Legalising Afghan opium production is a step on the road to achieving this.
Were the UN to allow the poppy crop it would benefit the international community's relationship with the Afghan people. Rather than condemning the farmers for supplying heroin to drug addicts abroad, we could congratulate them on supplying other vulnerable people with a drug that can relieve their pain and contribute to their treatment. This simple change in attitude would be an easy step to transcend tribalism and isolation in a country that is in desperate need of hope.
Making the trade illegal means that almost all of the poppies will go to producing heroin. Policing the trade is almost impossible and production will not be eradicated, since even in developed countries people grow illegal substances without the authorities knowing.
If the poppies were purchased legitimately, however, these drugs would go into producing painkillers rather than people-killers. The policy of the UNODC at present is destructive and confrontational. Legalising the poppy crop would not mean more heroin on the market than there is today and many suffering people around the world would stand to benefit.
The policy is a shambles and it needs to be changed. From the ashes of this war will rise a phoenix or a fiend and we need to make sure that it is the former not that latter that greets us in 10 years' time. Let Afghanistan rise to be a tall poppy and grow above the violence of its past.
Originally published by the Guardian, 13 June 2011.
Jack Merlin Watling
Jack is a journalist and historian. He formerly worked as planning editor at NewsFixed, and has contributed to Foreign Policy, Reuters, the Guardian, Vice, the Herald Group and the New Statesman.