Thought this article was an interesting insight in to Afghan opium
Sydney Morning Herald April 5 2008
Hamish McDonald, Asia-Pacific Editor
QUITE often, the most interesting people in the newspaper are the dead ones. So it was this week with the obituary of John Morgan, a professor of pharmacology at the City University of New York, known in part for coining the term "opiaphobia".
This is the irrational fear of opiate drugs, a syndrome to which politicians in the United States seem particularly prone. After only a few days' exposure in Washington and New York, Kevin Rudd seems to have caught the bug.
The Prime Minister announced his arrival at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation summit in Bucharest this week with a loud call for the "eradication" of Afghanistan's large opium crop, with a tight progress schedule and Afghan farmers somehow compensated for their losses.
The more immune European leaders in NATO were not impressed, and the initiative seems to have lapsed. Rudd and the Defence Minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, ended up looking a lot like their Howard government predecessors on Afghanistan - sitting on a smallish military contribution, calling on other countries to send more soldiers, and acting as spear carriers for a not very intelligent US show.
You could say opium has been the elephant in the room since the American-led coalition helped Afghanistan's Northern Alliance oust the Taliban government at the end of 2001. But actually, the room is full of elephants that no one likes to talk about, and it is not at all clear that opium is the most dangerous.
Let's take opium first. The puritanical Taliban had almost eliminated it during their five-year rule. Since they left, Afghan production has rapidly climbed to 8400 tonnes, or about 93 per cent of world illicit production, a large part grown in Uruzgan province, where Australia has its troops. The Taliban have set aside their scruples and exact a 25 per cent tax on the estimated US$1 billion ($1.1 billion) earned by farmers to finance their military campaign.
This is despite a crop-cutting exercise costing more than $US1.2 billion by the US and some allies, in which large armed teams from the Afghan National Police and American private contractors go around slashing opium poppy fields.
It has been highly ineffective - opium output soared 30 per cent last year - and just why was explained by Jon Lee Anderson in an account in The New Yorker of an operation in Uruzgan during last year's opium season.
The exercise, which ended in a shambolic retreat from Taliban attack, stirred up immense local resentment from villagers seeing their main source of income destroyed by Americans. It was clearly being directed away from opium fields enjoying protection from the provincial governor, Abdul Hakim Munib, a former Taliban deputy minister.
Washington is now pressuring Hamid Karzai's government to agree to aerial spraying of opium crops with the weedkiller glyphosate. Its ambassador in Kabul, William Wood - previously posted in Colombia and known on the diplomatic circuit as "Chemical Bill" - offers to douse himself in the stuff to show it is harmless to humans.
Rudd should spell out that he is not lending himself to this campaign, which the Europeans have long resisted. It would hand a propaganda gift to the Taliban, undercutting the Western military and civil campaigns. The results in Colombia, judging from the huge seizures of cocaine and anecdotal evidence of growing use in markets like Australia, are not immediately convincing.
More than that, opium growing and trading is thought to account for half of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. Filling this $US3 billion hole would not be easy.
Galling for opiaphobics, opium will be around for a long while in Afghanistan, and to put it callously, its heroin product is more a problem for Third World or emerging countries, many of them Islamic, than for rich countries like Australia where drug danger comes from cocaine and amphetamines.
Another big elephant is the physical support and direction provided by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence for the Taliban, using some of the billions of dollars in aid provided to President Pervez Musharraf since 2001. The evidence collected by Western agencies of an active ISI operation, and deliberate deception of the US and other governments, is said to be incontrovertible. Islamabad has not given up its search for "strategic depth" in Afghanistan.
This support, along with donations from Islamist groups in Saudi Arabia, another US ally, arms and money from Iran, and the opium levy, lets the Taliban pay their volunteers and local conscripts more than double the US$72 a month the Afghan Government pays its soldiers.
That is, when it pays them: arrears in salary are thought to be behind a high rate of desertions, another small elephant. The weak state of the Afghan security forces and administration means the international military forces cannot achieve a lasting result when driving out the Taliban from localities.
Then there is the worsening stand-off between the US and Iran over its nuclear fuel enrichment program. A peaceful settlement, which would have to start with Washington convincing Tehran it has dropped any idea of regime change, would have a positive spin-off in Afghanistan. Aside from keeping the Americans off balance, the Iranians have no national interest in continuing to help a Sunni extremist movement that, if it regained power, would oppress its fellow Shiites in the country. Iran, like Pakistan, also has a huge heroin addiction problem.
Rudd went to Bucharest looking for clearer reasons why fighting in Afghanistan will work. We still don't have them. Noticing the elephants would be a start.
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