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22 April 2002

The poppies that feed the farmers

Afghanistan's rulers are waging the wrong drug war

By Christopher Lord

Afghanistan’s decision to act against its heroin industry is a brave one. As farmers were already clearing the fields of weeds ready for the harvest, Hamid Karzai’s interim administration suddenly announced, on 6 April, that it was moving to enforce the ban on opium cultivation announced in January, which had been ignored by peasant farmers with no alternative cash crops.

Regrettably, this policy, whose execution is being attempted over the two or three weeks that remain until harvest time, seems doomed to failure before it starts.

The farmers are mostly hard-working, religious-minded family men, doing what they can to provide for their families. They cultivate opium openly, in the fertile river valleys. The first stage of the trafficking that ends up on the streets of London and Amsterdam had also taken place in the open: farmers would bring their produce to market in plastic bags – as if it were fruit or cereals – and middlemen would pile it up in their shops and market stalls, waiting for business.

Their customers, the mid-level traffickers, have now been driven underground. They are still in business, though. They have large stockpiles of a virtually imperishable product, and disruptions in the trade will only push prices up. Seizures around Afghanistan’s borders since the Taliban fell have included opium, morphine base and heroin itself, so it seems that it is not just the cultivation and trafficking of opium that has continued, but the manufacture and smuggling of heroin.

Opium poppies are so easy to grow, and the raw opium so easy to harvest, that this high-risk but relatively low-profit phase of the operation of manufacturing heroin can be done almost anywhere. The main thing that it needs is to be located in an environment where official interference can be avoided. Afghanistan, still a country without a real government, has provided such an environment for 20 years. The trade is a regional operation that also involves people in Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

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Large-scale commercial opium cultivation began in Afghanistan only when it became more difficult to carry it out in Pakistan, as a result of the war on drugs announced by Richard Nixon and continued ever since by successive US administrations. All the evidence is that the same large-scale operators are behind it. Closing down the Afghan farms will simply force farmers to move cultivation elsewhere, probably into areas of the former Soviet Union where the western writ does not run.

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“Dozens” of deaths have been reported, as Kabul’s forces confront angry and desperate farmers protesting against the destruction of their livelihood. With no banks or mainstream financial institutions functioning for a generation, farmers developed a system of credit whereby they would borrow money locally against future earnings. The Taliban’s ban on poppy cultivation was already a disaster for many who had borrowed money to buy seed, fertiliser and equipment, and to provide for their families while they waited for their crops to grow. The money being offered by the interim administration, though better than nothing, is not enough to pay off the debts already incurred. This is mainly why the farmers are protesting. Although they do not support the idea of maintaining the heroin industry, they are trying to avoid financial disaster and the loss of their lands to local big shots.

Will the heroin moguls also seek to resist the new policy? Almost certainly, as they don’t have much to lose. If they can exploit this year’s crop, even partially, it represents a quick and easy profit. If not, they can move smoothly to plans B, C and D. However, the issue here becomes the murky one of warlord politics, of who is paying whom, and who has the big battalions on their side. There is an uncomfortable parallel with the 1980s, when the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) supported mujahedin leaders they knew were involved in the heroin busi-ness. Military and strategic interests, they thought, predominated; and these anti-Soviet allies were supported with money and weapons. The result was a flood of Afghan heroin into the US. This time around, it will be Europe that gets it.

There is a simple logic behind destroying the poppies in the fields that makes this policy attractive to fund-providing countries looking for quick and visible results. The farmers, we think, can grow wheat or pomegranates or something else instead. Unfortunately, they can’t. Not if they want to buy shoes or school books. Apart from opium, the agriculture of Afghanistan is mainly subsistence farming, with no cash profit involved. Two international aid programmes aimed at reversing this situation proved ineffectual. The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention had negotiated with the Taliban regime for the introduction of two extensive crop-substitution programmes. The first ran from June 1989 to March 1996, and the second from March 1997 to 2000, when it was abandoned. Neither made an impact on levels of opium production, which rose dramatically while these schemes were in effect; nor did they bring about the miracle of a legitimate agricultural industry for Afghanistan.

A democratic, honest Afghan government can work towards this as a long-term aim, with western support. But closing down the opium farms without adequate compensation is just a way of spreading despair and ruin through the countryside, while spurring the heroin tycoons of the region on to a new phase in the development of their hugely profitable enterprise.