How to nip the opium problem in the bud

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 05 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 05 February, 2009, 12:00am

Quite right - the Obama administration is gearing up to pressure the Europeans to put more men in boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Quite right - the Europeans don't want to engage in a war of attrition like the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s, or like the US in Vietnam a decade and a half before. There is nothing worse than having to pull out with your tail between your legs.

The answer to this paradox is that the Europeans, using their nouse as well as their soldiers, should confront the issue of the Afghanistan poppy crop, which is 90 per cent responsible for all the heroin sold in Europe and the one that funds over 80 per cent of Taleban activity.

This brings me to a memorable conversation I had in Islamabad with then-president Pervez Musharraf two years ago.

He suggested that the west should introduce a common agricultural policy for Afghan's poppies - to do as both the European Union and the US do with certain crops - buy it up with government money.

Buying the Afghan poppy crop was first suggested by the International Council on Security and Development. The idea would solve two problems in one blow. First, it would prevent - the often unwilling - opium farmers being driven into the arms of the Taleban, for protection and as willing buyers and traffickers. Second, its crop could help the world, especially the poorer parts in Asia and Africa, with their chronic shortage of medical opiates. India, Australia and Turkey, the latter encouraged by the Americans since 1974, are the only countries allowed to grow poppies under the supervisory authority of the World Health Organisation. Western countries buy most of it.

Needless to say, there are the many practical problems that appear to confront this idea. If the price were set too high, it might encourage even more farmers to grow poppies. Besides, however high the price, it is said by some UN economists, the traffickers would simply outbid the government, knowing that most recipients, the addicts, would foot the bill. And, if the price were too low, farmers would go on selling at least some of the crop on the black market.

But this overlooks human nature, especially in an earnest Islamic nation where everyone knows - including the once anti-drug Taleban - that narcotics are strongly condemned by traditional Islamic teaching. Only desperation has driven most farmers to opium. All things considered, they would rather sell to a government agency at, say, today's going price, especially when they know that their product was going to help people in pain.

Such a policy would be far more effective in undermining both the Taleban and al-Qaeda than any number of new troops sent in for combat. But, let some of the troops help with the buying up of the crop, to make sure there are no secret, unofficial, diversions, and to police districts declared as in compliance.

US President Barack Obama has called for new ideas on the world's seeming intractable problems. Well, here's one.

Jonathan Power is a London-based journalist