Starving Afghanistan into the hands of the Taliban:

Why pushing the Afghan government into a poppy eradication policy won’t end the heroin trade - and the legal alternative that could

The disastrous policy of pressuring the Afghan government to destroy poppy crops without providing any alternative source of income for Afghans – many of whom are still starving to death as I type this – shows no signs of changing unless we all put pressure on our governments to change it.

This policy has inevitably pushed many farmers in Southern Afghanistan into the arms of the Taliban or hiring gunmen to protect their crops. After all if the choice is starving to death – and watching your children starve to death - to obey a government that provides you with nothing and seeks to destroy your only source of income – or else disobeying and even defending your crops by force which would you choose?

That’s one of the reasons that British troops are also being killed daily in Afghanistan – because our government wasn’t prepared to consider alternative strategies such as the obvious one suggested by the excellent Senlis Council report on Afghanistan. That alternative is to buy the poppy crop and use it to produce opiate based painkillers - which are in short supply. Of course the Bush administration haven’t been too keen on this. They're great abstract moralists (and the Republican party gets campaign donations from the big pharmaceutical companies who profit from high prices of painkillers due to restricted supplies of opium)

If our government , former Defence Minister John Reid and current defence minister Des Browne were really supporting our troops surely they’d be questioning this policy though? In fact they haven’t. ‘Outspoken’, ‘straight talking’ John Reid never uttered a word , never changed the policy.

It seems when it comes to clashing with the Prime Minister or the Bush administration over strategies which are bound to fail and so lead to out troops dying for nothing he just isn’t willing to speak out or talk straight – and isn’t a safe pair of hands at all.

Des Browne – the current defence minister – has emphasised that British troops aren’t carrying out the eradication of poppy crops. That’s quite true. They’re not. The people mainly involved in actually destroying poppy crops are Afghan government forces. The Afghan government’s motives are first that the American and British governments have put pressure on them to end the heroin trade and second that the Taliban and other warlords take a significant share of the profits in the form of protection money used to buy arms and pay fighters.

Yet we’re told that criticising this policy – which was bound to fail from the first (if you destroy the only source of income a country has without providing an alternative they’re not going to all accept it gratefully) is in Des Browne’s phrase ‘undermining the troops’. So continuing to support a self-defeating strategy that’s increasing the number of Afghans who are fighting our troops is ‘supporting’ them – while saying that we should either switch to a strategy of licensing of poppy crops for sale as painkillers and negotiate a peace that stops our troops being killed for nothing is ‘undermining’ them?

If we offered a better price for poppy crops to produce opiate painkillers than the black market offers for heroin almost none of it would become heroin at all – and half the fighters hired by farmers to protect their crops from us wouldn’t be fighting our troops. We could even fund the construction of pharmaceutical factories in Afghanistan to give Afghans legal export earnings and jobs in a highly profitable and legal industry.

It’s not as though we’re reducing heroin production – in fact it increased in Afghanistan by over 1000% between the invasion of October 2001 and the start of 2003. Past efforts at drug crop eradication in other countries have failed utterly – as in Colombia – or simply led to the relocation of production to other countries (e.g from Turkey to Afghanistan in the 1970s).

Of course the heroin trade would not be entirely eliminated by supporting a transfer to painkiller production – but it would be reduced greatly without massive loss of life. The current failed strategy has seen increased heroin exports from Afghanistan at a high cost in lives. NATO’s commander in Afghanistan has even said Afghans could turn to the Taliban soon if we don’t start improving their lives rather than making them worse.

Everyone in Britain, France , Canada or the US who can could write to or email their MP or representative and ask them to support a change in this disastrous policy which costing the lives of our troops and Afghans in a war neither side can win – and pointlessly when a legal and beneficial alternative to this pseudo-moralistic ‘war on drugs’ is readily available with the only people likely to lose out from increased painkiller production being pharmaceutical firms who can afford reduced profits a lot more easily than Afghans can afford to starve or be shot or our troops can afford to be killed because of a self-defeating strategy based on tabloid headlines rather than reality.