Canadian soldiers are fighting and dying in one of the world's largest narco-states. Afghanistan lives on the production, trade and export of opium poppies. The money from that trade lines the pockets of drug lords and senior Afghan government officials, provides income to farmers beyond any other source, and helps finance the Taliban and other NATO opponents.
NATO, for all its brave talk of "poppy eradication programs," hasn't got a handle on the problem. Unless and until it does, the insurgents will remain well-financed. And endemic Afghan corruption that runs up to the highest levels of government and police will remain unchecked.
In 2006 - the very year when NATO's anti-poppy efforts in Afghanistan were supposed to become evident - poppy production jumped 59 per cent over that of 2005. These efforts were evident - 15 per cent of the poppy fields were taken out of production - just not effective. Twenty-eight of the country's 34 provinces are hooked on the opium business.
The biggest producing province is Helmand, where the British (who are responsible for NATO's "poppy eradication" efforts) are stationed. The Canadians are next door in Kandahar, another poppy-growing province.
Last month, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reported that output from Afghanistan's crop represents a staggering 82 per cent of the world's opium. Other traditional producing areas, such as Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle, have witnessed a decline, but more Afghan opium than ever was produced.
Almost 13 per cent of Afghanistan's population, about three million people, are involved in the opium business, according to the UNODC. But that 13 per cent grossly understates the share, because the larger population figure includes children and women who are not involved. If only adult males are included in the opium business, the share would be between 30 per cent and 40 per cent.
NATO planners had optimistically talked about inducing farmers to switch from poppies to wheat. The UNODC figures show why Afghan farmers aren't that stupid. They can make $4,600 (U.S.) a hectare from poppies, compared with $530 for wheat. Development projects by NATO countries and NGOs, however well meaning, are dwarfed in economic importance by this poppy trade.
Even so, farmers aren't the biggest beneficiaries. They get about $750-million from the business, while traffickers get $2.3-billion. Some of those traffickers are in cahoots with the Taliban, or are Taliban members themselves.
Farmers who might not want to sell to insurgents are often terrorized into doing so, because they or their families are threatened with violence. Police officers, who earn a pittance, find it hard to resist payoffs. Ditto for minor government officials. As for senior officials, some of them are direct participants in the trade.
It used to be that traffickers sent the crop outside Afghanistan to be transformed. The UNODC finds, however, that "opium is increasingly being processed into morphine and heroin within Afghanistan." That is, inside the country that NATO is trying to save from the Taliban and, it would appear, from itself.
NATO's anti-poppy policy is just chasing its tail. Eradication is happening, but production is soaring. The UNODC says that, after the massive increase in 2006, the Afghans' share of the world market could "rise again in 2007."
A few voices (the Senlis Council being one) suggest legalizing the trade, so NATO could buy the crop and take it off the illicit market. Critics of that approach scoff, insisting legalization would merely increase overall production and wouldn't keep the opium from insurgents.
Okay, but what else can anyone suggest except more of the same, when the same isn't working? We're not talking about any old crop or trade. We're talking about the lifeblood of the rural Afghan economy. We're talking about a product that corrodes everything it touches. We're talking about a crop in a narco-state that is helping to finance a deadly insurgency that's killing Canadians and other NATO soldiers.
Obviously, many other factors make for the insurgency. But it's hard to imagine any "victory" in the Afghan struggle, whatever "victory" might mean, without curbing this opium economy, or at least channelling proceeds away from the insurgency.