Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Persuading Afghan Farmers to Stop Growing Opium
Corriere della Sera - August 31st 2008

There is a strange inconsistency in the way we treat farmers. If they grow wheat, or sugar beet we pay them subsidies, sometimes to produce more, sometimes to produce less. But if they grow coca or opium poppies, we send in soldiers and helicopters to try to eradicate their crops by force. That, at least, is the policy being used in Afghanistan and Colombia. That policy, said the top anti-drugs official at the United Nations, Antonio Maria Costa this week, is failing. So why not consider the alternative, tried and tested for more than four decades in the European Union: farm subsidies?

            Afghanistan is by far the world’s biggest supplier of the opium that is used to make heroin. For poor Afghan farmers, struggling to survive in a country torn by war, lacking roads or railways and with water scarce, growing opium poppies is their best option. The social damage that heroin does is no concern to them, for it occurs thousands of miles away in Europe and North America. Moreover the profits from the trade in opium and, increasingly, in locally made heroin, provides income for the Taliban insurgents who are challenging the western-backed government in Kabul led by Hamid Karzai.

            The result is that the West, along with President Karzai, is caught in a trap. Using force to punish farmers for producing opium is ineffective: the UN believes that production in Afghanistan has fallen in 2008 by only 6%, and that was mainly thanks to a drought in the north. Also, however, it alienates the very local people that the West wants to get onto its side in the fight against the Taliban. Doing nothing would also be bad for although there would be less alienation there would be plenty of opium and plenty of opium trade to provide income for the Taliban and other criminals.

            It seems obvious: introduce a version of the Common Agricultural Policy and pay Afghan farmers to switch from opium to other crops. It would be expensive. But if it worked, it would achieve two valuable goals: it would cut the supply of opium to the heroin trade, forcing up street prices and discouraging drug use; and it would generate instant support for President Karzai and the West from all the farmers, their families and their neighbours who benefited, depriving the Taliban of income, of support and of recruits.

            So why hasn’t this been done already? The British government, in fact, is tentatively beginning to advocate this sort of solution, which is a nice irony since Britain has long been one of the fiercest critics of the Common Agricultural Policy. The reason why it hasn’t been done already probably begins with the fact that the drugs trade is illegal.  But this is an unreasonable objection: the farmers, unlike drugs traders and pushers, are surely victims of their difficult circumstances, not criminals.

            A stronger objection is that neither Afghanistan nor the coca-producing countries of Latin America are really like the European Union: law enforcement and other institutions are very weak. One danger would be that farmers would pocket the bribes and still go on growing opium, for there would be few inspectors or policemen available to monitor progress; another that the scheme would be vulnerable to massive fraud and corruption.

            A further objection is that these subsidies would just force opium production to move to another country, meaning that true consistency would require the subsidy programme to be extended worldwide to all potential producers of the most harmful drugs, making the cost incalculably high and requiring the programme to last forever.

            Those are powerful objections, but for two points: the first is that the current anti-opium policy is failing anyway; the second is that Afghanistan is more important than other countries that might, potentially, start producing opium, thanks to the operations of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda there and in neighbouring Pakistan.  There is really only one other alternative policy: that of legalising drugs like heroin and cocaine in Europe and America, in order to cut the criminal profits from the trade and to start to reduce demand by other means. But no politician is willing to advocate drug legalisation.  Using an Afghan version of the CAP is surely worth a try.


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