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Refreshingly, Emerson is at least partly right on the Afghan poppy trade

Our Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson, in an interview this weekend stated that the eradication or spraying of the poppy fields is not the answer in Afghanistan.

Emerson says burning poppy crops in southern Afghanistan is not the way to stem the tide of opium and heroin coming out of the war-ravaged region.
Speaking on a national news program, Emerson says the solution might be to step up interdiction efforts at the processing and shipment levels as the drugs make their way out of the country.
Although somewhat refreshing from the blind obedience to the US "spray the crops" mantra (although maybe that is changing), Emerson is naive if he believes that Nato can stop the production and exportation of opium from Afghanistan.

The so called drug traffickers (by western standards) are the business elite in Afghanistan that are fully ingrained with the unfortunately corrupted political establishment.

Afghanistan has become an opium economy. The growing and harvesting of poppies and the processing and exporting of opium is the major industry in Afghanistan.

At least that is how it has been described by Sarah Chayes, an American, author, former reporter and presently the director of a coop in Kabul that manufactures soaps for export.
After reporting on the fall of the Taliban, Chayes was asked by the Karzai government to return to Afghanistan and help to rebuild the country.
In this candid PBS interview with Bill Moyers, from last February, Chayes openly discusses the wide spread corruption, the result of US and NATO caused civilian deaths, the Taliban and the proposed eradication of the poppy fields.

MOYERS: What happens if the United States government sprays all the poppy plants and kills them, as happened in Colombia. What do the farmers do?
CHAYES: They join the Taliban. I mean, it's the biggest gift we could possibly do for the insurgency. What else would they do? They're furious. Their livelihood is taken away. Their children might be poisoned (from the spraying). Or they might think their children are poisoned. They join the Taliban. They take revenge.
MOYERS: So if people were not growing poppies, what would they be growing?
CHAYES: What exists down there is very valuable crops. Almonds, apricots. It's fruit crops mostly. To me, the way to attack opium is to compete with it.
Like let's make it possible to make a living -- you don't have to import some exotic new plant. They've got almonds, they've got apricots, they've got pomegranates. They've got cumin, they've got anise seed. Wild pistachios. We're putting all this stuff in our soap.
Why isn't there a fruit juice factory in Kandahar? It's the pomegranate capital of the world. You know, everyone's talking about the antioxidant qualities of pomegranates. That it's the Garden of Eden of pomegranates down there.
And what's amazing is, with all this money that you mentioned being spent over there, you can't get any money to do stuff like that.
Chayes doesn’t adhere to her own country’s rhetoric that the poppy trade is run by the Taliban. The drug traffickers are in fact the businessmen, the entrepreneurs in Afghanistan. They are the only ones providing credit and more importantly financing for industry.

They're just businessmen. They happen to traffic opium rather than trafficking, you know, cars, or trafficking televisions. They're businessmen who buy and sell opium. And it's a slightly complicated buying and selling. But, in fact, they've got some really excellent business practices. Like they provide credit to farmers.
So, for example, one of the reasons that so many people grow opium is, there is no available access to credit. Ordinary credit. Not just business credit.
I suspect most of the people listening to us, have a credit card in their pocket. Afghans need credit, just as much as we do. They can't get it.
And so, they borrow money. They need to marry off their sons, for example. It's going cost them $5,000 or $10,000. They have to pay a bride price. They have to have a feast for the entire village. They have to-- you know, where are they going get that money?
So they turn to the opium trafficker, who lends them money. And he demands repayment in opium.
Although Chayes strongly backs Karzai and the importance of continuing a NATO presence in Afghanistan, she goes on to describe a totally corrupt system of government, from the customs agents to the provincial governors.

There are two industries or sources of revenue in Afghanistan, the poppy trade and the international development funds. The drug traffickers/entrepreneurs control the poppies and the corrupt government officials control the development funds.

Similar to most countries the business elite and the political elite are intertwined, both protecting and profiting from each other in a symbiotic relationship.

Emerson is naive if he believes that NATO can stop the processing and exportation of opium.

It would be the same has the US government saying that they will stop General Motors from producing cars or Harpers government deciding to stop Alberta from developing the Tar Sands.

It's not going to happen.

In watching the Sarah Chayes interview you actually get a more positive impression of Afghanistan and a slight glimmer of hope.

What becomes evident is that it will not only take many years and a refocussing of the development funds and priorities to actually create alternatives for the Afghan people.

However it will also require a rethinking of the support and funding provided to Pakistan if you want to also stop the Taliban.

And right now that should remain the priority for the Canadian and NATO forces.

References: Emerson quote from Macleans here and the Sarah Chayes PBS interview here.

PS: If you haven't seen the interview it is truly worth the time. 


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