CORRUPTION FERTILISES THE OPIUM CROP
You can dismiss the vague, feel-good notion that our deployment in Afghanistan is doing anything to reduce the burgeoning production of opium – it’s not. Instead, and behind closed doors, the Australian forces have accidentally but incontrovertibly developed an almost symbiotic relationship with the drug trade. The bargain is simple: we leave the drugs alone and they don’t assist the Taliban. It’s a simple deal, but it leaves the southern province of Orüzgan firmly locked in the grasp of a drug lord.
The farmers are quietly allowed to cultivate the deadly opium poppies and export the refined product to the west. In return, they’re leaving the foreign forces alone to get on with destroying the Taliban. It’s all part of an implicit deal that is, so far, holding; but at enormous expense to our credibility. It makes a mockery of one of the prime reasons for sending troops over there to begin with.
Today, the new poppy crop is only a few centimetres high, but already it’s easy to see it will going to be a bumper year for opium production. The international coalition’s rhetoric, of course, remains implacably opposed to the drug. But this doesn’t mean anyone is doing anything to turn these sentiments into action. The reality on the ground is fragile and no-one wants to risk the gains. The Australian forces, in particular, have become hooked on effectively supporting the trade. To do otherwise could ignite further insurgency that could spread rapidly across the country, irrevocably destroying the pretence that the intervention is succeeding.
There’s a plethora of reasons used to explain exactly how the poppy trade has become such a vital part of not only the country’s economy and why nothing can be done about it. Unfortunately, drugs now run through the very fabric of Afghanistan’s society, corrupting politics, choices, and the rehabilitation of a functioning nation. Even the international attempts to use financial rewards (money) to modify the behaviour of Afghans has been a failure. The basic problem is the drug trade is simply too profitable and, as a result, virtually nothing can be done to stamp it out.
Although it’s important to note that this return to growing opium was never inevitable. The Taliban had, using ruthless measures, virtually eradicated drug production by 2001. But then came September 11th, the fall of Kabul, and the critical switch of Western attention to the war in Iraq. Drug production returned and flourished in the subsequent vacuum.
A key factor behind the return of the drug trade has been the lack of adequate road links inside Afghanistan. Farmers need to grow long-lasting crops capable of withstanding a severe battering as they’re hauled across the rutted dirt roads to market. They’ve also got to grow a crop that’s worth real money—otherwise they can’t earn enough to pay-off the bandits (and road police) who control the roads.
Local strongmen also demand rent from tenant farmers – payable in poppy seeds – and the incentives to cultivate this crop become irrestisable. This explains why the international forces are ready to turn a blind eye to the spreading fields of scarlet as they drive past. Inexpensive opium is openly sold in the market at Tarin Kowt, a few kilometres from the diggers base. The problem is that attempting to deal with the issue simply opens a Pandora’s box of complications and difficulties. There is no simple solution.
The international forces are caught in a cleft stick. If they try to eliminate production of the drugs, they’ll alienate the people. This is one of the few raw materials that is worth producing. On the other hand, allowing the trade to continue simply reinforces the power of the drug lords who are preventing the country turning the corner and becoming peaceful again. The trade is dominated by criminal networks that dictate what happens through the barrel of a gun.
The majority of the drug money doesn’t ever find its way into the pockets of the growers, because it’s not a product that can be marketed by the small landholders. Instead it’s collected by local strongmen, because only these people are powerful enough to get the opium out of the growing areas and speed it along the rutted provincial tracks. Nevertheless, the continuing failure to deal with the issue is now undermining the entire project to restore normality to the country.
The Australian forces appear to have made their own unilateral decision to turn a blind eye to the trade. There’s no doubt that opium production is booming in Orüzgan. A number of foreign observers insist it’s at its highest level ever. Some three years ago the province was only the sixth largest producer in Afghanistan: today it’s closing in on the leaders. The experts are tipping that this year the province will have the third largest area devoted to the cultivation of drugs.
Diplomats from other countries privately voice their firm belief that Australia isn’t doing anything to combat drug production. As an example they cite what happened around the village of Deh Rawood early last year. A number of farmers from this area attempted to ‘go clean’. They planted other crops in the fields, just as they’d been urged. But afterwards the local Afghans say they were hugely disappointed, because the Australian’s had failed to provide extra backing – either financial or military – to support their attempt to escape from the drug trade. Growers insist that this year they’ll returning to the more lucrative cash crop. They know no one will stop them.
A foreign diplomat in the capital, Kabul, says it doesn’t have to be this way. “The Australians are ignoring the issue. They seem to be hoping it [the opium problem] will go away. It won’t. Opium is now the number one cash crop in the province.”
His accusation is a devastating indictment of the Australian role in Orüzgan. It’s not merely that Australia is doing nothing to curb the province’s blooming poppy trade; it’s rather that others are asserting the poppy trade is flourishing and booming as a direct result of Australian policies.