By Shah Manzoor Alam
The cultivation of poppies in Afghanistan is treated as a menace because it produces heroin which is being used for illicit drug trafficking. It is also an important source of funding for the Taliban. In order to prevent illicit drug trafficking and to dry up this important source of funding for the Taliban, NATO forces particularly British and American marines have pursued a vigorous policy of eradicating Afghan poppy cultivation.
This policy has signally failed to achieve its objective. This is evident from the fact that during 2011, NATO with the use of massive forces relentlessly destroyed the poppy crop and succeeded to drive the poppy farmers out of the Helmand valley. Furthermore, they offered attractive incentives to farmers to grow a high yielding variety of wheat.
Despite the incentives Afghan wheat cultivation has not increased. The farmers moved to peripheral areas of the region where poppy cultivation has flourished. Consequently poppy cultivation in 2011 increased by over seven percent compared to the previous year, and it is estimated that it will increase further during the current year. In a recent dispatch Taimur Shah and Alissa Rubin reported in the New York Times that the “program has been met with hostility by many local residents who say they are reduced to poverty without the income from the poppy crop.”
With the income earned from the poppy crop the farmers can maintain a better standard of living and can also pay for the marriages of their children which are prohibitively expensive.
The resilience of Afghan poppy cultivation calls for a serious review of the poppy eradication policy and the adoption of an alternative strategy which will serve the best interests of the people of Afghanistan and will also transform poppy cultivation from a menace to an asset for the economy of Afghanistan.
It should be noted that Afghanistan was not a poppy cultivating region before the Soviet occupation. Agriculture and horticulture were its main economic activities. Its principal exports were pomegranates, grapes and apples in addition to dry fruits such as walnuts, pistachios and raisins. Afghanistan turned to poppy cultivation when, during the Soviet occupation, its agriculture was destroyed and its dry fruit industry was ruined. The soil and climatic conditions of Afghanistan appear to be ideally suited for poppy cultivation. Poppies have, therefore, been adopted by Afghans as their main cash crop in place of dry fruits and other horticultural products. Moreover, it is a highly profitable crop and there is huge demand for it in the world market.
The eradication strategy fails to appreciate that poppies are the main source of income for poor Afghan farmers which is why the draconian destruction policy is being fiercely resisted. Despite all the efforts of NATO forces including American marines to eradicate poppy cultivation, it continues to flourish and Afghanistan still supplies 90 percent of the world’s demand for heroin.
The Afghans will not abandon poppy cultivation unless and until they have an equally lucrative alternative source of income. In view of this, it will be counter-productive and a futile exercise to eradicate poppy cultivation and dismantle heroin laboratories by air strikes. A United Nations report, released in 2007, also opposes eradication because “it can drive up the price and put more money into the hands of the Taliban, while alienating poor Afghans who depend on the crop for their livelihoods.” Instead, the report suggests “disrupting the trade by hitting the open markets where opium is bought and sold, the convoys that transport it and the labs where it is processed into more potent drugs, primarily heroin.” This is a negative approach and should be abandoned. Instead a meaningful alternative may be conceived that will transform poppy cultivation into a lasting asset to the Afghan economy.
The poppy is a very useful medicinal plant. Poppy pods when processed scientifically yield opium, morphine, heroin, codeine and many other pharmaceutical products. They are mostly used as sedatives and pain killers, and are also prescribed to relieve colds, cough, and bronchitis. Currently India, Australia, and France are among the few countries that are sanctioned by the United Nations to grow poppies and produce these pharmaceutical products.
Afghanistan should be added to the list of countries permitted to produce the above-mentioned medicinal products. Afghanistan is a natural home for poppy plants. It claims a tremendous natural advantage over other countries in the production of poppy pods. In light of this fact, it is suggested that instead of destroying the poppy crops and dismantling processing labs, the government of Afghanistan with the financial support of a consortium of aid-giving countries, should each year buy the entire standing crop of poppies from farmers at the market price and acquire the primitive poppy pod processing labs, compensating their owners reasonably well.
These processing labs should be replaced by modern pharmaceutical manufacturing plants to produce pain-relieving drugs and other medicinal products. This will change the status of Afghanistan from the supplier of illegal heroin to that of a principal UN-recognized producer and supplier of poppy-based pharmaceutical drugs.
Every effort ought to be made to train and employ Afghans in the manufacture of these sophisticated products, using advanced technology. The main benefits of this policy will be to offer employment to a large number of local Afghans in opium factories with relatively higher wages, and the introduction of modern science and technology to Afghan culture. This will significantly change the outlook of Afghans when they observe the benefits of science and technology in improving their quality of life. The demand for learning about scientific methods and new and improved technology in other fields of economic activity will also grow at an accelerated pace.
This positive approach to salvage the economy of Afghanistan is likely to generate a tremendous amount of goodwill and will deprive the Taliban of their main source of funding. The supply line to illegal drug markets in the world will completely dry up. It will also give a new and progressive direction to the Afghan economy, will accomplish multiple objectives in one stroke and will be, certainly, welcomed by the government and people of Afghanistan.
Thus before exiting Afghanistan in 2014 the Americans would be able to leave a legacy of science and technology in this backward country which may radically alter the social, cultural, economic and political landscape of Afghanistan for the lasting benefit of its people.
Prof. Shah Manzoor Alam is a retired academic who was vice chancellor of the University of Kashmir.