It is not Afghan farmers who are addicted to drugs trade

Most Afghan farmers are sharecroppers, whose landlords dictate what they can grow. Consequently, the high-value opium poppy is the crop of choice.

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After 31 years of violence and elusive peace, the opium poppy crop remains one of the few stable income sources for poor Afghan farmers, who cannot be effectively persuaded to end poppy cultivation without being granted alternative ways of making a living. Most farmers usually comply with the frequent poppy ban set by the Afghan government with the understanding that legal alternative means of survival will be provided. But when the promised aid fails to materialise, drugs production quickly rises again. This is a repeatedly learnt lesson that must be heeded.

From 2001 to late 2008, international efforts mostly focused on forced eradication of poppy crops, which merely targeted the effects of poppy cultivation, not its underlying causes. International experience proves that eradication in isolation is ineffective. Decreases in cultivation in one area can simply lead to increases in another, and news of impending eradication efforts can provoke growers to disperse cultivation over a larger area, much like investors diversifying portfolios to hedge risk. Counter-narcotics efforts must be enacted simultaneously across the country in a strategic manner.

Above all else, farmers must be given the opportunity and necessary resources to grow alternative crops. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that most Afghan farmers are sharecroppers, whose landlords dictate what they can grow. Consequently, the high-value opium poppy is the crop of choice.

Liberating farmers from this cycle of dependence requires that they have access to both land and alternative financing, such as widely available micro-lending. Further, to make alternative crops more lucrative to farmers, investments in infrastructure are needed. In addition to supplies of water, extension service, seed and fertiliser, farmers must have access to reliable farm-to-market roads or to cold-storage facilities to preserve products for later export. Today, Afghanistan lacks a well-maintained road system, and only about 10 per cent of the population has access to reliable electricity.

Once effective alternatives are available, farmers could begin to transition away from poppy cultivation without paying a financial penalty. An initial grace period could be extended, beyond which noncompliant farmers would face crop eradication and criminal prosecution.

To be effective, counter-narcotics efforts must target all players in the long chain of the opium trade, including traffickers, distributors and dealers, who pull in about 80 per cent of the export value of Afghan narcotics. Essential to the prosecution of these kingpins is a functional justice sector, with coordinated law enforcement and judicial activities. Inadequate compensation, training and equipment currently limit the ability of the Afghan policemen and judges from effectively combating this threat.

The international community recognises these shortcomings in the justice sector and their deleterious effects on the counter-narcotics efforts. Since June 2007 when the international community held its first Conference on Rule of Law in Afghanistan in Rome, attention and resources have doubled for strengthening the country's judicial institutions. However, immediate concerns about security continue to shortchange the implementation of much-needed reforms in the formal justice sector, even though good governance directly contributes to short- and long-term stabilisation efforts in Afghanistan.

But even with improved governance in the country, the expanding global demand for Afghan drugs allows transnational drugs traffickers to permeate Afghanistan's borders and undermine the rule of law in the absence of coordinated prosecution and enforcement efforts among Afghanistan, its neighbours and consumer countries. Proactive regional cooperation is needed to implement the United Nations Security Council resolution 1818 of July 2008 to curb the flow of precursor chemicals into Afghanistan and the export of narcotic products out of the country to the end markets through neighbouring states.

The tenets of Islam, Afghan culture and the Afghan legal system all prohibit the production, consumption and trafficking of drugs. Poor Afghan farmers would honour these tenets right away if they were given a legal and viable option.

Poppy cultivation has continued to decline by about 20 per cent over the past few years, but this success could be reversed unless Afghanistan and its nation-partners deliver an effective combination of carrots to aid poor sharecroppers and sticks to enforce the law against high-value drugs traffickers, as the main drivers of drugs production in Afghanistan.

The international community must review and effectively double their counter-narcotics efforts on the global and regional levels. Through medical treatment and improved welfare assistance for needy addicts, the consuming countries must focus on demand reduction. At the same time, they must join transit countries and Afghanistan to cooperate against drugs traffickers and to dismantle their vertically integrated market mechanisms, from production to retail distribution.

And to enforce the provisions of the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, the international community must deliver on their collective responsibility to help provide Afghanistan with long-term law enforcement and alternative development resources to eliminate drugs in the country and to end its adverse impact on international public health.

M Ashraf Haidari is a longtime observer of efforts to eliminate drugs in Afghanistan who works at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, DC