Abandoning Afghans doesn’t mean “peace”

(Chris Riddle, Observer Comment, Sunday 15 November 2009.)


Karzai is disgusting but there’s no peace to be had by leaving – not for her, not for their children, not for us. They don’t want us to go.

As Neil D says on Harry’s Place, “Abandon Afghans? Not in my name”.

And I’m checking for what Kellie has to say.

Update: here’s what he says:

“There is an old chestnut that never goes away about there being no military solution in a conflict like this, only a political one. And it’s half true.
The problem is with the other half, the half made up of an enemy which believes very much in a military solution, or a terror solution. Before anyone can negotiate with them, this enemy has to actually recognise that there is no military solution available to them, and to reach that point they will have to be fought. Fighting them isn’t the solution in itself, but it’s a necessary part of creating the conditions for a political solution, or as may be more likely, the multiple political solutions necessary in a conflict this complex.”
Read on – you will also find in that post some links to video recorded discussions about the way forward, from knowledgeable, experienced people.

29 thoughts on “Abandoning Afghans doesn’t mean “peace”

  1. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, the consequences of a precipitous withdraw of NATO forces would result in either:

    A civil war or Taliban takeover.

    In either case the death toll could be hundreds of thousands, followed by a refugee crisis and no aid agencies being significantly active in Afghanistan.

    Aid agencies won’t want to stay in the country where there is little security and only warfare, then the Afghans will be truly destitute at the mercy of the Taliban.

    Taking up the issue of negotiation with bits of the Taliban, there is one problem, basic psychology, they would only be swayed if they felt that the NATO forces would be around for a long time or are significantly more powerful than the Taliban.

    If neither condition satisfied then the drawing power of such negotiations is limited, ie, why would they come over if they think they’re going to win? They wouldn’t need to.

    But I think anything that weakens the Taliban is probably a good idea, and if they can split off some of the more reasoned elements, good luck.

    Not sure it will work tho.

  2. The Green Party advocates buying the poppy crop and using it to relieve untold pain and suffering in the global South, where about 6million die every year from cancer and HIV without medical morphine and heroin. That policy could stabilise the Afghan state, reduce corruption and enable NATO to get out without a subsequent Somalisation of the country. What’s not to like?

  3. I think that is a good idea, taking away money from the Taliban and making productive use of the Poppy is a smart move.

    But as the NATO forces seem to be doing everything they can to make their own mission fail I am not sure they’ll see it that way.

  4. When Chris Riddell was being considered for the job of main editorial cartoonist at The Observer, I believe the other cartoonist going for the spot was Martin Rowson. Seeing this cartoon, I’m very happy that it went to Chris, and not just because of his wonderful drawing skills.

  5. On Karzai, he’s disappointing, and as corrupt as those who surround him, but is he disgusting? He’s a politician playing politics in circumstances where shortly after the overthrow of the Taliban he was refused the level of military support from the UK and US that he thought necessary to exercise power. Following this, it’s not surprising that he sought to secure his power by other means.

    I can’t remember if it was on Terry’s blog or somewhere else that I saw the argument made that uncertainty about Western commitment encourages corruption. It encourages people to concern themselves with narrow personal interests rather than with building a state, as that state may have the rug pulled from under it tomorrow by fainthearted Western politicians.

  6. There is evidence that Karzai’s brother is engaged in the drug trade, and a recent estimate is that the Taliban only get a small percentage of the poppy profits – the lion’s share goes to corrupt officials. Corruption is the central cause for dissatisfaction of the Afghans, and the illicit drug trade is the central cause of corruption.

  7. Hi all – thanks for this – very interesting indeed. I have to be quick just for now – Richard, I may have this wrong but did the Green Party initially reject the poppy policy because they thought it would help the heroin trade? I had half an eye on the debate, but only half. I thought it sounded like sense – pomegranates tool

    Kellie, that is really interesting, and plausible. I do think that it’s worth treating corruption as disgusting though. So many dead (and I’m not talking just about our soldiers).

    All for now. Thanks again

  8. There was one vote cast against the policy in our Conference vote. The European Green Party referred it back at first, and accepted it at the next Congress. The European Parliament has accepted the proposal. The FCO argues that some of it might leak onto the black market – oblivious to the fact that it is ALL leaking onto the black market at the moment. duh!

  9. Does it have to be one thing, or the other?

    I would certainly prefer people were producing food not drugs, but initially the whole crop could be bought up and then various areas migrated to suitable crops, slowly over time.

    That would eventually lower the level of poppy production in a controlled way, and the Afghans would then have a stable food supply.

  10. Given the issue of corruption, I’d wonder what resources would be needed to purchase large poppy crops in a secure way.

    The article I linked to points to leakage of legal opium production in India onto the illegal market, and the difficulties in Afghanistan would obviously be greater, with whatever effort devoted to control leakage being an effort that was denied to other work.

  11. I think whatever course of action is taken getting it accepted by the Afghans slowly, will enhance the chances of a longer term solution.

    So you’d have to transition from one system to another and if you initially bought the poppy crop then you’ve got a degree of leverage and a way of helping those farmers who wish to get off of drug production.

    The objective in the end should be to reduce as much drug production as possible, but in the least objectionable way.

    So taking all of the poppy production, offering specialised help for those who wish to go for food production would seem to be the shrewder way.

  12. I was not particularly impressed with the Small Wars Journal paper. I am sure there are more thoroughly researched and detailed papers out there.

    “This daft scheme, which relies on counterfactual arguments about morphine demand”. “Daft” and similar pejoratives are a pretty good indicator of a weak argument. The “counterfactual arguments about morphine demand” probably refers to a recent review that decided that morphine products were not in short supply. That review ignored the situation in Africa, where the likelihood of getting analgesia for terminal pain is approximately zero. This is the bit that gets me, as a doctor. I am sure most readers will have seen someone dying of cancer. Imagine for a moment what that would have been like without morphine and heroin.

    I do not underestimate the difficulty of gathering the crop, nor that of re-educating African and other global south medics to use morphine. At present it is viewed as a no-no because of the addiction risk, but of course this is not an issue in terminal pain.

    The difficulties shrink into manageability when compared with the
    difficulties of securing any kind of honourable withdrawal from Afghanistan, the boneyard of invading armies.

  13. It seemed to me that one of the key points in the article was the price difference between legal and illegal poppy harvests. If you were to buy raw opium in Afghanistan at current legal prices, there would be a massive incentive for corruption of the system as the illegal price is so much higher. The potential downsides then would be increased corruption, along with increased bureaucracy and diversion of security and aid resources in trying to build and control a legal trade. As for Africa’s morphine needs, there probably would be more stable countries where poppy could be cultivated more cheaply.

  14. indeed, but whatever choice you have to make it palatable for the Afghans, so some form of transition is required.

    I think buying up the crop, lowering the price, improving infrastructure and moving to food production, whilst slowly reducing the overall scale of poppy cultivation is a shrewder choice.

    It would be unreasonable to expect the Afghan farmers to go cold turkey, but some method needs to be found to reduce overall poppy cultivation.

    An international scheme could reduce corruption, allow the cataloguing and analysis of the Afghans’ needs, which in turn would allow smarter aid and building projects, which in turn could reduce the dependency on poppy production.

  15. My limited understanding is that ISAF is moving away from anti-crop measures, so the transition can be made up of tolerance for illegal growers, low to no tolerance for illegal trade, and incentives for legal crops where security allows. Given that security is so uneven geographically, any transition would move at different rates in different places. This means accepting illegal production in low security areas for a period, but not getting it muddled with a legal trade.

  16. It seems to me given the importance of Poppy cultivation to the sustaining of Afghans that the notion of legal or illegal crops is counterproductive in this instance.

    Suppose for the sake of argument that you declare all of the production illegal, how do you eradicate it ?

    Destroyed crops? Impoverish the Afghans? Turn masses of the population against you?

    A recipe for disaster.

    Far better to take a pragmatic approach which accepts the poppy production is there, gains some leverage by taking all of it, treating the farmers as human beings, helping them build up the infrastructure and then slowly find the best places to transition to food crops.

    Apparently, in certain areas where there is drug production around the world, normal food crops have difficulties, so you can’t sweepingly replace poppy production with food production overnight, even if that were the most desirable course of action in the long run.

    A far better way is to treat the Afghans as human beings and slowly detach them from drug production, such an approach will help in winning them over to food production and the perils of drugs, etc.

  17. Well, as I say, I believe ISAF are turning away from crop eradication. Legality is relevant to the question of price, and to where the money ends up. Taking all the crop is impossible in a situation of low security where other armed elements covet the crop, unless you outbid them, in which case the cost is enormous and you can be sure a large amount of the money spent will fund the insurgency.

  18. ISAF, at least the British contingent, who do the policing of Helmand which is the main poppy growing area, has never had a crop eradication policy afaik. There are videos of patrols wading through the poppy fields, waving cheerily to the growers. The Brits rightly opposed a US scheme to spray with Agent Orange or similar.

    Remember that opium contributes more than 50% of Afghan GDP. Eradication is a non-starter. At present ALL of that is on the black market, so worries about leakage are entirely without merit.

    There is evidence that once we withdraw, the poppy production will cease anyway.

    Compare the costs of setting up the mechanisms necessary for buying the crop at inflated prices for a year or two, and then making whatever transition is necessary (remember that Africa needs medical opiates long term), with the full costs, including human, environmental, of continuing this futile and unpopular war.

    More on this here, though it is probably a bit repetitive.

  19. “Once the Taliban consolidated their rule and after the fighting generally stopped, some measure of stability was achieved. This led to a declaration in July 2000 by Taliban leader Mohammed Omar that opium production was un-Islamic. The Taliban then followed this up with a massive anti-drug campaign, actively enforced throughout the country.

    As this UN study (PDF) reports, they achieved a “near total success of the ban in eliminating poppy cultivation” and reduced production areas by a massive 91 percent. Helmand Province, one of the largest production areas in prior years, had its production reduced to zero.”

    From that article, but if I’m not mistaken prior to the ban the Taliban stockpiled masses of opium and the effect of the ban was to drive prices up, which they benefited from.

    So I think that the Taliban’s relationship to opium and poppy production is much more ambiguous than it is often portrayed in the West.

    Bear in mind that the Taliban took power in 1996, some 5 years before the “ban”.

  20. “The conclusion seems to be that instability and war are the primary factors responsible for increased opium production in Afghanistan. Before the Soviet invasion, and during the brief rule of the Taliban, opium production was either very limited, or deliberated curtailed.

    I predicted that the War in Afghanistan will soon be over, and that the Taliban will likely regain power afterwards. This makes it easy to predict, then, that Afghanistan will cease to be a major opium producer relatively soon after the war is over.”

    Brief rule 5 years?

    One year without opium production, but when the Taliban still stockpiled it.

    And a supposed certainty that it will stop should the Taliban take power? Hmm, rather tendentious reasoning in my view.

  21. More seriously, from Canada’s International Development Research Centre, here’s a 2007 presentation on countering opium production in Afghanistan with David Mansfield and Dr William Byrd.


    and mp3:

    Dr Byrd deals with the crop purchase idea at the start of the presentation, raising the same points as in the SWJ article, but in greater detail.

    Mr Mansfield goes into the nitty gritty of why some crop replacement strategies work and some fail, and wider economic implications beyond individual growers &c.

    David Mansfield has a website for anyone with an appetite for even more detail of his field work on opium cultivation in Afghanistan:

  22. Mansfield points out that the impact of poppy eradication would impact hardest on the poorest. No change there then. Byrd relies on the vacuous “leakage” argument. Neither deal with the unmet need in Africa, so Byrd suggests that decriminalising poppy in Afghanistan means a recession in India and Turkey.

    This is the page for the International Council on Security and Development, previously Senlis Council, who pioneered and are developing to licensing policy: http://www.poppyformedicine.net/

    I wish I could do more detail on this, but am up to my ears in AGW debate on the daily mail discussion boards.
    Yes, the Daily Mail. Mail readers are people too.

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