Seven Effective Ways to Defeat Extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Afghan police destroy a poppy crop – but does poppy ‘eradication’ really help end the war in Iraq and the drugs trade or is it failing and making things worse? (Photo: AP/


copyright©Duncan McFarlane2009


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Legalise opium poppy production for opiate painkillers, as proposed by the Senlis Trust (1). The British and American governments propose poppy crop destruction in Afghanistan, but the British government have legalised their growth for sale as opiates in the UK (2). Opium poppies grown for heroin provide around 38% of Afghanistan’s annual income (3). For comparison the recent credit crisis has led to a reduction in the size of the British economy of around 1.6% in the last quarter. The effects of reducing the income of Afghanistan, a much poorer country, by 38%, would be mass starvation on a scale even greater than that in the famines of 2001-2. Poppies can grow with very little water in poor soil. Due to the destruction of irrigation systems over decades of civil wars and invasions there are large parts of Afghanistan where no other crop is viable. With less than 7% of Afghanistan now arable land Afghans rely on poppies as a cash crop to earn revenue to import enough food (4). Neither destroying nor legalising poppy crops is likely to eliminate the drugs trade in any case – only move production to other countries. Legalisation for painkillers in Turkey succeeded, but then heroin production moved to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US government has funded and pushed pesticide spraying of crops from the air in South and Central American countries with ‘Roundup’, a modern version of Agent Orange, which, like Agent Orange, kills not only coca crops but food crops, animals and people. Despite the ‘eradication’ programme cocaine production in Colombia has increased rapidly (5), (6). In Afghanistan it’s the same. Between 2002 and 2008 heroin poppy cultivation doubled from around 75,000 hectares to over 150,000 hectares. There was a small reduction in the area cultivated between 2007 and 2008 (7).

One possible reason, as discovered by many academics and journalists and confirmed by former US Drug Enforcement Agency officers is that the drugs trade has been used for decades by elements of the US military intelligence and CIA as a means of providing funds for ‘covert operations’ and support to groups which congress has refused funding for. The most famous case was in the 1980s when Colonel Oliver North’s operations which involved smuggling arms to the contras in Nicaragua on the same planes that cocaine was smuggled into the US in. This was discovered in investigations into the Iran-Contra scandal. Obama’s Defence Secretary Robert Gate was a high ranking member of the CIA at the time. Although there wasn’t evidence he was directly involved the inquiry found his statements to it “seemed scripted and less than candid” (8) - (12). Given all this any eradication programme is likely to go the way the Colombian one has – becoming a war for control of the drugs trade in that country rather than to end it. The Bush administration backed the Uribe government’s ‘war on drugs’ in Colombia despite Senators close to Uribe having been convicted on charges of involvement in the drugs trade and high ranking members of the Colombian military having been reported by the CIA and Human Rights Watch to be working along with right wing paramilitaries involved in murders and drug trafficking (13) - (15). Obama in his Presidential campaign suggested he would change Plan Colombia to focus on social and economic causes of the drugs trade and protecting human rights rather than military aid. The reality remains to be seen though and it’s hard to see how this could be done through a government as corrupt as Uribe’s.

Critics of the legalisation for opiates proposal have claimed that painkillers couldn’t provide the same income to farmers as heroin. That’s not true though – it would provide more. Legalisation for painkiller production is a viable alternative which could provide farmers with at least as much income as illegal drugs would, since they only get around 20% of the final sale price from drugs smugglers (16). In 2004 US state department official Robert Charles claimed heroin could sell for 100 times the price poppy farmers are paid by smugglers (though, like all Bush administration claims, this must be treated with scepticism) (17). If fair trade schemes for farmers growing poppies for painkillers were set up they would be likely to make much more from poppy crops grown for painkillers than poppies grown illegally for heroin. Farmers producing a legal product can demand the government ensures they are paid a fair price for it. Farmers growing an illegal product can’t.

Making poppy production illegal and attempts at poppy crop eradication unnecessarily turn many Afghans into criminals and threaten their main source of income. As a result many farmers and smugglers who would otherwise have no reason to fight the central government are hiring people to defend their crops and income by force. Legalisation for painkiller production could end this problem without any more deaths.

One World Bank and UN report on the benefits of poppy crop eradication in Afghanistan came to the stunning conclusion that “The interdiction campaign should lead to a substantial improvement in the balance of payments. The decline in farmers' income should result in a substantial reduction of aggregate demand, including for traded goods. Moreover, the decline in labor costs relative to the price of tradable goods should boost investment and production in the tradable goods sector. Overall, the resulting improvement in the licit trade balance would largely offset the deterioration in the illicit balance of payments.” (18)

In other words poppy eradication will reduce the income of Afghan farmers and the wages of Afghan farm workers, so they’ll not be able to afford to buy as much, reducing imports and so improving the balance of payments as imports will be reduced relative to exports. This shows how far many official policies are from aiming at benefiting the majority of Afghans.

Ahmed Rashid has pointed out that farm labourers earn $10 a day harvesting opium poppies – five times the average wage in Afghanistan (19). They could earn just as much from poppies grown for painkillers.

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Provide foreign aid to build factories and laboratories to refine the opium paste into generic opiate painkillers. This way Afghans and Pakistanis would get skilled jobs and increased personal incomes and government revenues from this manufacturing and export industry, rather than only the income from the raw materials grown by farmers. Their health services would also get cheaper painkillers for their own patients.

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End counter-productive military offensives, including reducing the use of air strikes and unmanned drones.. These result in too many civilian deaths and lose support for their governments and democratic values by associating them with the killing of civilians and foreign forces. Air strikes should only be used to defend against Taliban offensives. A single US airstrike in Afghanistan on 5th May 2009 was confirmed to have killed dozens of civilians by International Red Cross aid workers. It was one of many. President Karzai has repeatedly and publicly asked NATO to end its reliance on air strikes which cause heavy civilian casualties, but has been ignored so far. (See this page and sources for it)

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Focus any military effort on defending schools and development projects and areas the central government currently controls, not on offensives to clear the Taliban out of areas they currently control. This would encourage those outside the core areas where the central government’s authority is strong to want to join it voluntarily and get the benefits it offers rather than alienate people by force and violence. This would work on the model of the EU rather than NATO, though it does not need to mean an entirely ‘free market’ approach. One possible exception would be to secure control of main roads to prevent attacks by Taliban or bandits on them and permit trade and development within the country.

Ideally Afghan and Pakistan forces should be trained and equipped to do this. Currently they are hampered by poor equipment, low wages and infiltration by the Taliban. The other measures suggested here could help with these problems. The problem with this is that most of the military forces in Iraq are loyal to one warlord or another, involved in human rights abuses such as torture and even in kidnapping, banditry, murder and theft. This includes many of the poorly paid Afghan police. Foreign aid providing increased pay for police would be one way to reduce this problem.

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Increase civilian aid rather than military aid, in order to provide jobs, healthcare and education. That is what could win the battle for hearts and minds which military force has so far lost. Families and children who can get a real education rather than only a religious one in a madrassa are less likely to become extreme in their views. People who are provided with viable livelihoods and healthcare by their government and foreign donors are much less likely to become supporters or members of extremist groups than people who have lost friends and family members in offensives by government and foreign forces. Killing people’s relatives and friends causes them extreme suffering. It should not be surprising that it creates extreme reactions. Much military aid is probably still being used by elements of the Pakistan and Afghanistan militaries as it has in the past for their own aims – such as training Islamic groups such as the Taliban to help counter Indian influence or ‘threats’ in the case of Pakistan’s ISI military intelligence (20) - (28).

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Make civilian aid to the Afghan and Pakistan governments conditional on increased minimum wages for the poorest as well as human rights, democracy and the right to form trade unions. Aid which only benefits the wealthy and powerful will not help or persuade the majority of Afghans and Pakistanis. Increasing minimum wages will not only benefit Afghans and Pakistanis but will help to stop people in Europe and America being put out of work by cheap exports made by exploiting people in other countries.


Also make aid conditional on increases in wages for Afghan and Pakistani police and soldiers to amounts as high as those currently paid by the Taliban, Al Qa’ida and other warlords. This will give desperate people an option other than fighting for the other side and will reduce crimes such as kidnapping by police forces. One lesson from Iraq was that people in countries suffering dire poverty will fight for whoever pays most. The Sunni ‘awakening’ militias began turning on Al Qa’ida after the US offered aid to fund pay of $300 a month for each militia member.

Some of them were even former Al Qa’ida fighters, who were fighting more for money to survive than anything else (29) - (32). When this US aid ended in November 2008 and the Iraqi government decided to disband and disarm the militias and move them to other (possibly lower paid) jobs there was a resurgence of car bombing attacks against Shia within months Shia (33), (34). This may have been as much or more due to Sunnis’ fear of becoming victims of Shia attacks if they were disarmed as any possible reduction in pay though.


While the US military claimed great successes for the surge, no reliable statistics were available and those from independent bodies did not show the same degree of success. Even on the coalition’s figures the number of civilian deaths in late 2007 was higher than it had been in January 2006 (35), (36). The ‘El Salvador’ option of hiring locals to torture and murder the opposition was promoted by many former Pentagon and CIA staff and most probably implemented, so that some of the ‘militia’ or ‘sectarian’ violence by Iraqis against Iraqis may have been by US backed groups, just as it was in South and Central America in the 80s (37) - (45). The fact that occupying powers have always sought to divide the people of occupied countries and turn them against each other to stop them uniting against the occupiers is also worth remembering.

Any solution focusing on the military and policing over political negotiations, peace settlements and social and economic solutions is at risk of making things worse rather than better.

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(1) = Senlis Council (2007) ‘Poppy for Medicine - Licensing poppy for the production of essential medicines: an integrated counter-narcotics, development, and counter-insurgency model for Afghanistan’, and

(2) = Herald 03 Sep 2008 ‘UK farmers allowed to cultivate poppies for morphine’,

(3) = CARE & CIC March 2005 ‘TOO EARLY TO DECLARE SUCCESS: Counter-Narcotics Policy in Afghanistan’, page 2,, Cited by Ahmed Rashid (2008) ‘Descent Into Chaos’ , Chapter 15, page 325

(4) = Ahmed Rashid (2008) ‘Descent Into Chaos’ , Chapter 15, pages 317-319

(5) = Observer 17 Jun 2001 ‘How global battle against drugs risks backfiring’,

(6) = Washington Post 19 Jun 2008 ‘Coca Cultivation Rises In Colombia, U.N. Says’,

(7) = BBC News 26 Aug 2008 ‘UN reports Afghan opium decline’, (see graph of heroin production based on UN figures)

(8) = Levine , Michael (2000) Deep Cover , 2000 (Michael Levine is a former US Drug Enforcement Agency officer)

(9) = Scott , Peter Dale & Marshall , Jonathan(1998) Cocaine Politics University of California Press , LA & London ,1998

(10) = McCoy , Alfred (1991) The Politics of Heroin - CIA complicity in the global drug trade Lawrence Hill , New York ,1991

(11) = Cockburn , Alexander & St.Clair , Jeffrey (1998) Whiteout - The CIA , Drugs & The Press Verso , London & New York , 1998

(12) = FINAL REPORT OF THE INDEPENDENT COUNSEL FOR IRAN/CONTRA MATTERS, Volume I: Investigations and Prosecutions, Lawrence E. Walsh, Independent Counsel, August 4, 1993, Chapter 16 – Robert M. Gates,

(13) = Guardian 27 Mar 2007, ‘The politicians and the drugs cartels - scandal engulfs Colombia's elite’,

(14) = Human Rights Watch 2002(a) ‘Colombia Human Rights Certification IV’,

(15) = Guardian 18 May 2007, ‘Colombian leader denies link to paramilitaries’,,,2082667,00.html

(16) = UN Office on Drugs and Crime & The World Bank ‘Afghanistan’s Drug Industry’, (cited by Ahmed Rashid (2008) Descent into Chaos, Chapter 15, p326)

(17) = Voice of America (VOA) News 27 Feb 2004 ‘US Officials See Link Between Terrorists and Narcotics Trade in Afghanistan’,

(18) = UN Office on Drugs and Crime ‘Afghanistan’s Drug Industry’ & The World Bank, (cited by Ahmed Rashid (2008) Descent into Chaos, Chapter 2, p40)

(19) = Ahmed Rashid (2008) ‘Descent Into Chaos’ , Chapter 15, page 325

(20) = New York Times 09 Oct 2001 , 'Pakistani Is Already Calling on U.S. to End Airstrikes Quickly',

(21) = Ahmed Rashid (2008) , ‘Descent Into Chaos’, Penguin, London & NY, 2008, (hardback edition) especially Chapter 17 and esp 367-368 and note 35 on page 452 (notes for ch17) on June 2006 internal NATO and Afghan intelligence report on Pakistan’s ISI military intelligence training, funding , arming of Taliban in Pakistan for attacks in Pakistan , but also pages 77-78, 48, 50, 114, 116 and rest of Ch17

(22) = Telegraph 06 Oct 2006 ‘Nato's top brass accuse Pakistan over Taliban aid’,'s-top-brass-accuse-Pakistan-over-Taliban-aid.html

(23) = Independent 14 March 2006, ‘Pakistanis accused of aiding Taliban with missile parts’,

(24) = Guardian 19 May 2006, ‘Pakistan sheltering Taliban, says British officer’,

(25) = Times 8 Oct 2006 ‘Britain says Pakistan is hiding Taliban chief’,

(26) = Times 21 Jab 2007 ‘Pakistan accused of backing Taliban’,

(27) = Times 27 Dec 2007 ‘Main suspects are warlords and security forces’,

(28) = IHT 01 Oct 2008 ‘Spanish report ties Pakistan spy agency to Taliban’,

(29) = Guardian 10 Nov 2007, 'Meet Abu Abed: the US's new ally against al-Qaida', , cited by Patrick Cockburn (2008), ‘Moqtada Al Sadr and the fall of Iraq’, Faber & Faber, London, 2008 , chapter 17, p252-3 & 265

(30) = Sunday Times 25 Nov 2007, ‘American-backed killer militias strut across Iraq’,

(31) = Guardian 20 Dec 2007, 'A surge of their own: Iraqis take back the streets',,,2229892,00.html ;

(32) = NPR 17 July 2008, 'U.S. Trains Ex-Sunni Militias as Iraqi Police',

(33) Guardian 02 Apr 2009 ‘Iraq disbands Sunni militia that helped defeat insurgents’,

(34) Time 24 Apr 2009 ‘Baghdad Bombings: Is Iraq Unraveling Again?,,8599,1893770,00.html

(35) Council on Foreign Relations 12 Sep 2007 ‘Backgrounder - Iraq Security Statistics’,

(36)Council on Foreign Relations 14 Sep 2007, ‘Daily Briefing - An Appeal for Time in Iraq’,

(37)Arnson, Cynthia J. (2000)‘Window on the Past: A Declassified History of Death Squads in El Salvador’ in Campbell, Bruce & Brenner, Arthur (2000) ‘Death Squads in Global Perspective: Murder with Deniability’, Chapter 4

(38)Newsweek 08 Jan 2005 ‘'The Salvador Option',

(39)Times 10 Jan 2005 ‘El Salvador-style 'death squads' to be deployed by US against Iraq militants’,

(40)HRW 09 Jan 2005 ‘U.S./Iraq: Reject Use of “Death Squads”’,

(41)Guardian 13 Mar 2007 ‘Pessimistic Pentagon studies fallback options in Iraq’,

(42)Human Rights Watch 28 Oct 2006 ‘Iraq: End Interior Ministry Death Squads’,

(43)Human Rights Watch 10 Apr 2005 ‘The Lesson of Honduras’,

(44)Reuters 27 Nov 2004 ‘U.S. sends in secret weapon: Saddam's old commandos’,

(45)IPS 19 Oct 2006 ‘IRAQ: Govt. Death Squads Ravaging Baghdad’,

copyright©Duncan McFarlane2009


Make military aid conditional on increased wages for police and soldiers


Make civilian aid conditional on increased minimum wages


Increase civilian aid to provide jobs, healthcare and education which can win ‘hearts and minds’ and stop people being forced into crime


Defend development in government areas instead of attacking


End counter-productive military offensives and air strikes


Provide foreign aid to build factories to refine opium into painkillers


Legalise opium poppy production for opiate painkillers