Tackling Poppy Power in Afghanistan

Published by Bill Moyers, December 7, 2006, on Commondreams – New CARE policy brief warns there’s no “quick fix” to the nation’s drug economy. Five years after the Taliban’s fall, Afghanistan’s economy is hooked on opium, but CARE’s new policy brief warns against “quick fixes” to the nation’s drug trade.Click here to download CARE’s policy brief, “No Quick Fix: Curbing Opium Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan” (sorry, out from my labtop the link is not working, but I am on travel. Go to the site of the above link.)

The brief puts forward concerns about eradication-led strategies: “Aerial eradication in Afghanistan would focus extensive resources on the wrong end of the value chain, i.e. the raw material, as opposed to areas where the ‘bang for the buck’ is bigger — arresting traffickers, destroying heroin labs and removing corrupt government officials.” This would have a devastating, immediate impact on the Afghan people, many of whom are extremely poor and endure a vastly underdeveloped rural economy.

The brief recommends addressing the roots of the drug trade, with a sustained strategy for development and the rule of law that will reduce poverty, root out corruption and restore the Afghan people’s faith in their government.

“Without a strong central government — one that can provide security, establish accountable law and order, rein in warlords and corrupt officials and win the people’s trust — meaningful reductions in opium poppy cultivation are unlikely,” according to the report.

The report also urges policymakers to think twice about tying development aid to poppy eradication, saying there is little evidence that conditioning aid works, and that the premise that farmers need to be strong-armed into abandoning opium cultivation is off-base: “The vast majority would prefer to grow other crops, but without viable alternative livelihoods in place, they grow poppy.”

An Afghan elder quoted in the report describes how difficult it is for a legal crop to compete with opium without development assistance.

“Afghanistan produces good apples and once exported them to many countries,” he says. “Now in the markets we see apples from Pakistan that are very cheap and have improved quality. We can’t sell our apples for this price. The money won’t pay for the fertilizer… We need help from our government. If this continues, the farmer will burn his orchard and grow opium.”

Afghanistan’s economic dependency on opium has grown over the past twenty years — fed by conflict, drought and poor governance. It is now unparalleled. This dependency may take a generation to overcome. The brief points out that Thailand’s success in eliminating poppy and opium production was several decades in the making. It relied on an appropriately sequenced combination of inclusive, participatory development on the one hand and eradication and law enforcement efforts on the other. The brief suggests policymakers apply lessons learned in Thailand to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan in 2006 ranks in the bottom six countries in the world in human development and remains on the top ten list of fragile states. CARE’s policy brief argues that getting counter-narcotics efforts right is critical to changing those statistics and improving people’s lives.

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