US changes course on Afghan opium, says Holbrooke

New policy to spend more on alternate crops and less money on eradication follows years of criticism that US ignored economics of drug trade.

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The United States is changing course on anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan, a senior official said Saturday, shifting its focus from the destruction of opium poppies to fighting drug traffickers and promoting non-narcotic crops among Afghan farmers who depend on the poppy harvest for survival.

Many analysts criticized the old policy for ignoring the economic logic that draws Afghan farmers to opium production, and said destroying their crops was no way to win their hearts and minds.

Opium is used to make heroin, and although Afghan production has dropped 19 percent in the past year, it still produces 93 percent of the world supply, according to the Associated Press. Most of that production happens in the south, where support for the Taliban is highest, generating between $50 and $70 million annually for the group, according to UN estimates.

Poppy eradication has been a tenet of US policy in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban government in 2001. But speaking to reporters at a G8 summit on Afghanistan in Italy on Saturday, US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke called it "a waste of money," says the AP.

Mr. Holbrooke said that, rather than weaken the Taliban, the US anti-poppy effort may have actually made the group stronger, the BBC reports.

"Spraying the crops just penalizes the farmer and they grow crops somewhere else. The hundreds of millions of dollars we spend on crop eradication has not had any damage on the Taliban."
"On the contrary, it has helped them recruit. This is the least effective programme ever," Holbrooke added.

The US will increase its funding of agricultural assistance programs to Afghanistan from "tens of millions of dollars a year to hundreds of millions of dollars," according to Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, says the AP. Holbrooke says the US will use that money "to work on interdiction, rule of law, [and] alternate crops."

The policy shift comes after years of criticism for the poppy eradication program, which observers say ignored the economics of the Afghan drug trade.

In October 2008, Foreign Policy magazine cited research by David Mansfield, an expert in the Afghan opium market, showing that the rising price of wheat during the world food crisis was enticing farmers to abandon poppies.

According to Mr. Mansfield's research, in 2007, Afghan farmers made $320 per acre of wheat and $640 per acre of poppy, while just one year later wheat yielded $840 an acre and poppy just $400. That drove many farmers to get into the wheat business, and during the same period the number of poppy-free provinces rose from 13 to 20.

If the decision to grow poppies is about dollars and cents, some have suggested policy alternatives that fight fire with fire.

Reacting to reports on the policy shift, one blogger on the liberal DailyKos website argued that "the international community ought to just buy up the whole supply" of Afghan opium and turn it into "cheap pain medicine."

$70 million is next to nothing, a cheap solution, compared to all the expense and grief caused by the now failed program of eradication. Better to peacefully gain the cooperation of the villagers, provide them with a source of income, and disrupt, at least in part, their reliance on unfriendly factions. It's win, win, win, isn't it?

Writing in Slate in January 2007, columnist Anne Applebaum called for a version of the same idea, saying it was superior to alternate crop promotion efforts that are forced to work "through a corrupt or nonexistent local bureaucracy."

She cites a 1974 Turkish program that licensed opium cultivation for the production of painkillers like morphine and codeine. The US supported that program, and today requires that drug companies purchase 80 percent of the opiates used in these products from licensed growers in Turkey and India.

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