The Poppy Problem

Marie Cocco
Marie Cocco is Executive Director Strategic Communications for BlueCross BlueShield Association in Washington DC. Cocco was among the first journalists to report the emergence of a business-backed movement…
Marie Cocco

WASHINGTON — Pakistani elections have reduced to rubble the Bush administration’s policy of supporting strongman Pervez Musharraf as the first, last and only bulwark against the terrorists who flourish under his nose. Neither unstinting political support nor billions in American aid ever resulted in the promised crackdown against the threat.

With Pakistan undergoing an uncertain political transition, Afghanistan next door provides an opportunity to make quicker and potentially more dramatic progress against what has been an unrelenting slide into violence, insecurity and corruption. The United States and its allies must rethink their failing effort to stanch the trade in illegal poppies, the Afghan bumper crop that finances the resurgent Taliban and terrorist groups in the region.

It will not come easily because the Bush administration is convinced the current strategy of eradicating crops — plowing them under before a harvest and trying to convince farmers to grow legitimate products — is working. But there is limited evidence of that.

Thomas Schweich, the State Department’s coordinator for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan, boasts that the $600,000 a year eradication program has eliminated 8 percent or 9 percent of the Afghan poppy crop. As a measure of success, he points to a new U.N. report that says poppy “cultivation levels will be broadly similar to, perhaps slightly lower than, last year’s record harvest.”

The same report, however, says the “total amount of opium being harvested remains shockingly high.” And it is increasingly concentrated in the lawless southern provinces, where security is so poor that the Taliban has re-established its control, warlords rule villages with impunity, terrorists infiltrate easily — and where eradication efforts haven’t really begun because of the danger. “This year, they have force protection,” Schweich says. “They will go in to eradicate.”

The outlook for what happens after that is cloudy. The U.N. reported in its current survey of Afghan poppy cultivation that of 206 villages that planted opium for harvest this year, 62 percent had done so in spite of eradication measures taken in 2007. “The experience of eradication in 2007 was not a strong factor in influencing the decision at the village level whether or not to grow opium poppy in 2008,” the U.N. says.

What emerges after two years of pumping money into an effort to eliminate poppy production is, at best, an uneven record. Poppy production has been curtailed in some regions, but seems to have become concentrated precisely where it is most dangerous to American interests. In these insecure regions, there is little, if any, distinction between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“Southern Afghanistan is commercially Pakistan,” says Norine McDonald, the lead field researcher in Afghanistan for the Senlis Council, an international think tank with three field offices in Afghanistan. “There is no border control. It doesn’t exist. The bad actors from Pakistan are moving clearly back and forth with insurgents, weapons and opium. It’s all one problem.”

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the United States and its allies sought to block the flow of money to terrorists through sweeping new banking requirements and broad surveillance of international financial transactions. Now we leave the equivalent of a pot of cash at the terrorists’ doorstep.

The Senlis Council recommends an abrupt change of course. It envisions pilot projects in which farmers could grow poppies for medicinal use — say, for morphine — with the opium immediately refined into pharmaceutical form at small village manufacturing sites so that raw crops don’t get smuggled. McDonald says the United States backed this approach a generation ago, using aid to help convert opium production in both Turkey and India for medical use.

Schweich scoffs at the idea as “beyond ridiculous,” mostly on economic grounds. Such projects, he says, would produce a “narco-welfare state” that would operate with government subsidy indefinitely.

Still, the idea has gained tentative interest elsewhere. Both the European Parliament and the Manley Commission, an independent panel that assessed the outlook in Afghanistan for the Canadian government, have said the medicinal approach deserves at least a look.

More of the same is almost sure to result in more of the same. Schweich says that eradicating poppy crops in the crucial southern provinces may take 10 more years. And that is an awfully long time to leave that pot of cash on the terrorists’ doorstep.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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