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THE INDEX — December 4, 2009

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Jonathan Power: Legalizing Poppy Growing in Afghanistan

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine who lived 460-357 B.C., concluded that diseases were naturally caused and were cured by natural remedies. Opium, he wrote, was one of the latter. But he was also of the opinion that it should be used sparingly and under control. If only our governments today could take such a sanguine and informed view of the use of opiates in medicine today. No one needs a more enlightened attitude than the Western forces now operating in Afghanistan where they are committed to destroying the peasants’ main source of income. The tough, no nonsense, eradication program has done as much as Western military action to push country people into the Taliban camp. The West has long been shooting itself in the foot. Both the former president of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf and the wise senior statesman and former finance minister Sartaj Aziz, who probably knows more about the economics of agriculture in Pakistan than anyone else, have told me that it would be more sensible for Western governments to help buy the poppy crop. This would solve two problems in one blow. First, it would help deal with the world-wide shortage of medical opiates which, according to the World Health Organization, are causing a “global pain crisis.” In Africa hundreds of thousands of people are dying in agony for lack of pain relief. Second, it would prevent the opium farmers of Afghanistan being driven into the arms of the Taliban.

Jonathan Power: Undermining Afghanistan's Opium Trade

Quite right: the Obama administration is gearing up to pressure the Europeans to put more boots on the ground in Afghanistan. Quite right: the Europeans don't want to engage in a war of attrition—à la the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s or as the United States did in Vietnam a decade and a half before. There's nothing worse than having to pull out with your tail between your legs and confront the electorate for the needless deaths of thousands of your brave and young.

The answer to this paradox is that the Europeans, using their nous as well as their military might, should confront the issue of the Afghanistan poppy crop—a crop that provides 90 percent of the heroin sold in Europe and is the source of funding for over 80 percent of Taliban activity.

This brings me to a memorable conversation I had in Islamabad with President/General Pervez Musharraf two years ago (published in Prospect magazine in March 2007). He suggested that the West should introduce a common agricultural policy for Afghan's poppies. In other words, to do as both the EU and the United States do with some other agricultural crops: buy it up with government money. “Buying the crop is an idea one could explore,” said Musharraf. “Pakistan doesn’t have the money for it. We would need help from the United States or the UN. But we could buy up the whole crop and destroy it. In that way the poor growers would not suffer.”

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