Canadian and other NATO troops will face greater dangers as a result of the Afghan government's pursuit of poppy eradication in southern areas where the Taliban are strongest, government authority is weakest and the farmers have no alternative sources of income. It is not in the strategic interests of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's forces for Kabul to target opium production at a time when the region remains so unstable. Yet the Afghan government, under pressure from U.S. drug enforcement officials, has launched this ill-advised program without considering the economic fallout or the military ramifications.
Washington has long pursued a strategy of eradication in its war on illicit drugs, but that strategy has rarely proved successful, even in more stable environments where growers could switch to legal crops. A U.S. company, DynCorp, which specializes in military contract work, has been hired to destroy Afghan fields without apparent regard for the military situation or the needs of NATO commanders.
Already, Britain has ordered that an additional battalion of 600 paratroopers be placed on standby for deployment to Afghanistan to cope with an expected surge in fighting in Helmand province once the government launches its eradication program in the south in December and January. Helmand accounts for more than a quarter of Afghanistan's entire annual crop. But other parts of the south are also producing poppies, mainly because the soil is too poor and the farms too tiny to grow much else - and nothing that comes close to the value of the poppy crop. Britain was hard-pressed to come up with the additional battalion. Canada has no extra troops to spare.
Fuelled by endemic corruption, lawlessness, ineffective reconstruction and the growing Taliban insurgency, Afghanistan has become a drug trafficker's paradise. The country is by far the world's biggest supplier of opium poppies, with production up by close to 60 per cent in the past year alone. Afghan growers now account for more than 90 per cent of the global supply, which is converted into more heroin than is needed to meet worldwide demand. No one questions the need to curb this deadly business. But the Afghan government is making a serious mistake. Its previous assaults on the country's most important export crop have all proved futile, because they have not been linked to an effective economic strategy that would give the growers a viable alternative. That remains the case today.
Destroying southern poppy fields raises the risk of more intense battles with the Taliban, who derive a chunk of their income from protecting drug kingpins and their operations. The Taliban will also have a bigger supply of potential recruits among poor farmers desperate to feed their families. Fighting for the Taliban puts money in their pockets.
There are alternatives to eradication that both Kabul and U.S. drug enforcement officials should be considering. The most obvious is to buy the opium output directly from the farmers, making their cash crops legal. There is a huge global shortage of morphine, codeine and other legal opiates, particularly in the Third World. The World Health Organization estimates that 80 per cent of the world's population has no access to the painkillers needed to battle cancer and other diseases. Afghan growers could actually increase their output, the drug middlemen could be driven from the market and there would no longer be a demand for Taliban protectors.
Surely that makes more sense than a strategy that is utterly divorced from the needs of Afghanistan's rural communities and adds needless extra risk to an already tough military task.