Monday, April 7, 2008


The beautiful and delicate poppy that now paints the landscapes of Afghanistan with vibrant colors, has long been the symbol for sacrifice. The aesthetic is as soothing to the sense of sight, as it is exasperating to the conscience. Families of soldiers bring home their loved ones in body bags from the despair that has become Afghanistan, and the sacrifice continues, little understood and scarcely appreciated. There is confusion in thought and in perception. Most of all there is turmoil in principles and ethical discomposure of policy. While security concerns have escalated to what should be described as chaos, the West and NATO maintain a public posture of denial, the Taliban controls half the country, and warlords and criminals have a good handle on all of it regardless who they support. Where’s the solution?

We have difficulty fully comprehending the war in Afghanistan since much of the reporting is confusing. The explanations have become too complex to unravel from San Francisco or Toronto, and even Washington and Ottawa have difficulty sorting out the mess. Most challenging is the provision of cohesive responses, military, financial, or otherwise. Indecision is stagnating the military presence and advancing the disintegration of the whole country, while much of it returns to the fanatical grip of the Taliban. The Taliban are now well funded from their share of the country’s principal source of income, as Afghanistan supplies over 90 percent of the world’s opium and over 80% of its heroin. Some estimated $4 billion a year in illegal drugs represent a majority of the $7.5 total GDP. Now that drug lords and terrorists can operate with virtual impunity, what was once a battle against terrorists, has become a war against the poppy, and there is no consensus on strategy.

Afghanistan hovers around the very bottom of the international human development index on measures that include life expectancy, nutrition and literacy. Its population is loyal to tribal elders, religious leaders, or commanders with durable military influence. It is no surprise that President Karzai is dependent on warlords for maintenance of stability, and all levels of the society are financially benefiting from poppy cultivation including the police and Afghan military. NATO forces are principally accused of being interfering non-Muslim foreigners. Farmers, the bottom of the opium production chain, are impoverished and not receiving much benefit from the proceeds. A farmer’s security is expensive and alternative livelihood programs are under-funded. Alternative crops are a vague concept when wheat or corn might only bring $250, while poppies can provide $2,700 for the same acreage, and are less vulnerable to the extremes of cold and heat, or drought.

Most of the money is made further along the delivery network including the huwala (transfer) system. The huwala is the unstructured, unregulated, but well organized and effective bedrock that provides all parties the wherewithal to move cash. Its organization connects to the outside world through cities in neighboring countries for the processing of transactions. Hope being placed on the creation of banking systems that would aspire to control the money laundering, ignores the failures of such regulated organizations in developed countries. For example, in Canada’s British Columbia, marijuana has reportedly become a bigger business than lumber, and yet neither banks nor government revenue agencies are capable of negatively influencing the billion dollar lifestyles of organizations in control of drugs. Financial guidelines and transparency expected from future or re-emerging Afghan banking institutions can be expected to provide about as much potency.

In the chaotic atmosphere of a country relying almost totally on narcotics, warlords are partners on intelligence and are occasionally allies in battles against Al-Qaeda and Taliban insurgents. There is currently no firm policy on the eradication of poppy fields – only of the sporatic damaging of fields. Fear that eradication will drive more of the population toward the Taliban is a very restrictive motivator. There is also apprehension of upsetting the financial foundation of an already unstable country.

Amongst endless scenarios for potential strategies, one has surfaced that may have promise if applied within the context of a broader and substantially decisive strategy. A recent proposal by an organization called Senlis Council claims that eradication has not worked and that the answer lies in licensing Afghan opium cultivation for the production of morphine or codeine. This would provide the country with a legal market for its principal crop. The argument seeks acceptance by pointing to the third world’s shortage of morphine that urgently needs to be filled.

Such proposal could be effective if enough money was found to pay for the potential new source of legal morphine and if all poppy growing operations not signed on to the program by a certain date were eradicated. That is an almost impossible task given the distribution of plantations and lack of security. Not only does the Taliban’s primary source of income have to be eliminated, but all illicit growing operations should be eradicated. The eradication must be complete and without exception, preventing the product of these poppy fields from further destroying lives of millions from New York to Tehran, and eliminating the social and financial grief the drug scatters without prejudice. It is not possible to allow both licit and illicit cultivation, and expect positive results. Afghanistan is a country in urgent need of complete rebuilding. All NATO and Middle Eastern countries should be contributing to the construction of infrastructure for the creation of a viable and a secure sovereign state. Such effort begins with investment in education, and production of goods (start with textiles), and opening doors to some initial markets.


  1. Well said and right on the money. Time to get out of there as well as Iraq.

  2. Whatever the cost of massive and comprehensive poppy field destruction via cruise missle delivered defoliant dispersal and economic assistance to former poppey farmers would be more than offset by the reduction in crime and associated cost of incarceration. It is in the national interest. Less than this is proof of systemic corruption. Addiction is slavery.