Just say no to opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan

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It's time for the US and its allies to face up to historical responsibilities by attacking the root of current violence and war in Afghanistan: the alarming resurgence of the Afghan opium trade.

Violence and insurgency, copying the suicide bombings and other desperate tactics seen in Iraq, are financed by the drug lords and traders who profit from the record production and traffic in opium and its most dangerous by-product, heroin.

Antonio Maria Costa, who directs the UN's anticrime and antinarcotics agency, UNDOC, has just provided stark details of a new UN report. Opium poppy cultivation, processing, and transport have become Afghanistan's top employers, its main source of capital, and the principal base of its economy.

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NATO forces are taking heavy losses fighting the Taliban in the south, especially in Helmand Province, the source of the lion's share of opium. US troops and a US-led coalition continue to police other regions, with the US still pursuing Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants.

Meanwhile, the drug culture, fostered by Afghan authorities, is turning Afghanistan into the narco-state it was during the Taliban years before the theocracy banned opium poppy culture in 2000 and 2001.

UNDOC's annual report shows that despite current worldwide expenditures of over $2 billion to fight drugs, Afghanistan in 2006 breaks its own records.

Opium production has grown in 2006 by 49 percent over 2005; areas under poppy cultivation by 59 percent. The predicted 2006 opium crop is 6,100 tons, significantly breaking the 1999 record when Afghanistan was still under Taliban rule.

The estimated 2006 crop is no less than 92 percent of total world production. And it exceeds world consumption of opium and its products by 30 percent.

It behooves policymakers and everyone else to overcome our historical amnesia about how this began.

Both the colonial French before 1954 and the Americans who followed them paid mercenary tribesmen in the wars in Vietnam and Laos with profits from drugs. The drugs were cultivated often under official protection and moved to markets by aircraft chartered by the American CIA in the 1960s and early '70s.

Former French intelligence boss Alexandre de Marenches recounted in his memoirs how he suggested to President Ronald Reagan and CIA chief William Casey in 1980 that the US-led coalition plant drugs among Soviet invasion forces in Afghanistan to weaken them. Mr. De Marenches said both liked the idea. This happened while Mrs. Nancy Reagan led a "just say no to drugs" campaign in the US.

Soviet military historians told this writer that drug addiction indeed spread among their personnel, who took their drug habits home with them. Russian commentators differ as to whether De Marenches's suggestion was actually implemented by the American CIA.

During Afghanistan's 1979-89 war against the Soviets, drug addiction soared among Afghans and Pakistanis who were exposed to the wartime growth in drug production, which had been encouraged by the CIA to pay for weapons and wages for mujahideen fighters.

The defeated Russians left in 1989. The West abandoned Afghans to tribal warfare and eventual Taliban rule. Though the Taliban banned opium cultivation in 2000 and 2001, it profited by taxing exports of existing opium and morphine-base stockpiles.

Now, as the new internal conflicts gather momentum, former and new warlord allies of the Americans are prospering as drug lords and financing the Taliban and other insurgents.

UN, European, and Afghan sources concur that there is a network of local and senior police and government officials involved in the drug trade. In August, President Hamid Karzai admitted failure of past programs to eradicate poppy farming, the subsistence activity of 80 percent of Afghans. He called the trade Afghanistan's "worst enemy," adding, "If we do not kill opium, it will kill us."

Mr. Karzai announced a new policy to downplay eradication – except where substitution of alternative crops or other "legal livelihoods" are available to farmers – and to emphasize law enforcement and weeding out corrupt officials.

For years, a European think tank, the Senlis Council, has advocated Afghan government licensing of limited opium production for legal medical use under tight government controls. But ethical considerations and pressure from the drug lords have blocked this. In a recent BBC documentary, experts proposed a concerted program, financed by governments, the UN, and NGOs, to buy up and sequester or destroy the opium crop over a period of perhaps five years.

The presumption is that poppy farmers would be obliged to start growing corn, other food grains, sunflowers, or whatever alternative crops they found profitable.

NATO (which has so far shunned the opium issue), its member governments, and EU authorities should now put their heads together in an intensive international effort to find solutions, even if these must come in gradual stages.

The present US administration and future ones should forcefully encourage and follow the phasing out of Afghan drug production, mobilizing those with academic and scientific expertise to advise the Afghan government in this endeavor.

Afghanistan's future depends on saving it from opium and its evils. More than this, eliminating the raw material for heroin and other opium products would keep them off the streets of the world's cities where they have done so much damage. People everywhere would ultimately benefit.

John K. Cooley, a former Monitor correspondent, wrote "Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism," now in three English-language editions and eight foreign languages.

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