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Afghanistan's poppy problem

By Anna Solar-Bassett - posted Monday, 7 September 2009

Nobody will laugh long who deals much with opium: its pleasures even are of a grave and solemn complexion. Thomas de Quincey.

The expense of a war could be paid in time; but the expense of opium, when once the habit is formed will only increase with time. Townsend Harris.

Obama came to power with an overriding foreign policy goal: move the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is where the real trouble is. Removal of forces from Iraq was quick, 17,000 additional troops were pledged to Afghanistan, and an increase of US aid from US$732 million in 2007-2008 to US$2.586 billion in 2008-2009 has been requested. But why the panic?

Quite simply, this is an effort at stabilising what Richard Holbrooke, Obama's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan calls the “the most dangerous region in the world”. The military-meets-aid approach of the current Administration is targeting opium trafficking and its continued effect on widespread corruption within the country. Remember the sobering fact, however, that 93 per cent of the world's heroin emerges from Afghanistan. What kind of solutions currently existed for eradicating crops which seem to promise so much in financial gain for Afghanis?


The addition of troops by Obama to the region acknowledges the immense challenge of creating a non-corrupt government and judiciary that, eventually, can self-govern without relying on opium income. To do this, first, must come the extremely difficult task of altering the fact that in 2004-2005 36 per cent of the Afghani GDP came from opium, thereby fostering and developing long-term corruption and lackadaisical attitudes towards the “rule of law”. By 2008, the UN reported that this figure had risen to 53 per cent.

The World Bank Institute rates Afghanistan as the second or third most corrupt country in the world. Worryingly, the majority of this corruption is in the judicial, political and security sectors, and is overwhelmingly ruining confidence of locals in the state thereby reinforcing, compounding and deepening the poppy problem.

The extent of the eradication is far-reaching

The overwhelming majority of opium is produced in Helmand, a region of primarily Pashto nationality. It accounts for up to half (2,000 metric tons) of Afghanistan's total opium production. This creates immense difficulties with affecting a less politically-corrupt elite, as President Karsai is from this region and background. He therefore relies on many of the votes from the area, not to mention illegal opium funds for political lobbying. However, worst of all is the fact that the Taliban base their stronghold in Helmand, recruiting for and siphoning funds towards al-Qaida insurgents based across the border in Pakistan.

Thus, the increased centralisation of opium money is having a deepening long-term effect on political corruption, as well as continuing to move the vast bulk of poppy dollars outside the reach of most Afghan persons and into the hands of al-Qaida. Indeed, reports authored concurrently by the World Bank, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, and the UN Human Development body report that while the macro-economic effects of the opium trade purport opium's alleged boon for the Afghani nation, in micro-economic reality is that most of those funds end up channeled away from local growing farmers and tradespersons into the hands of insurgents or global business people in the shape of laundered funds. Incentives for the cash cow thus abound ...

There are varying and contradictory layouts of the opium problem. Although all 34 Afghani provinces have some level of opium production, only half of the 364 local districts harbour it. Poppy growth can range anywhere from 2 per cent to 80 per cent of the local income. Perhaps most staggeringly, only 3 per cent of Afghani land is itself involved in opium production. Again, it reinforces how deeply the economic incentive provided by these growths are - public expectations of corruption within these regions is higher than the average estimate of 50 per cent (as measured in UN research with locals), sitting instead at between 83-100 per cent.

The same UN report highlighted that 50 per cent of the respondents to a 2006 investigation by Integrity Watch Afghanistan had paid opium-related bribes in the past six months. Sixty-six per cent of the respondents of the above survey had seen their family suffer financially from this corruption. The justice sector and the security sector, arguably the two most important sectors in combating corruption, were seen as the worst culprits, with a 41 per cent and 20 per cent corruption rate respectively.


Solutions in sight?

Former President George W. Bush’s policy was to reduce growth of opium through spraying and/or cutting-down of fields, giving way to huge issues of whether or not to compensate farmers who lost their livelihood; the corruption that these subsidies brought with them; the inability of wheat to be a long-term sustainable alternative crop due to fungus problems; not to mention the associated “Agent Orange” issues of mass-sprayings.

On one hand, compensation gives an incentive to farmers to simply regrow their crops or, if they were not growing poppies, to do so. On the other hand, the current policy of non-compensation has lead to a rapid increase in Taliban enrolment, especially in Helmand where most of the culling was being done. It has also contributed highly to escalating levels of corruption among those employed to eradicate the drug. Richard Holbrooke, Obama's Pakistan/Afghanistan representative, suggested the Bush’s drug-culling strategy “may be the single most ineffective policy in the history of American foreign relations”.

The Obama Administration is currently pursuing a method of attacking the laboratories and places of production as opposed to the harvest, but Holbrooke has again pointed out that historical examples of drug-smuggling countries (such as those in South America) show that manufacturers will quickly find other means of production. Holbrooke admits that this is a short-term strategy that requires long-term investment in alternative crops as a more sustainable solution.

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About the Author

Anna Solar-Bassett is a BA/LLB IV student at the University of Sydney with a keen interest in international relations and affairs.

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