What is state failure? See my conceptualisation of state failure on the right flank below.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Bringing peace to the poppy fields?

The MStFB Poppy Series No. 1.
To start off my promised series on poppy eradication in Afghanistan, first of all here is, above the intro, a picture for you of Hungary's famous national dish, noodles with poppy seeds (it's a national dish in some other countries as well, but I don't want to antagonise Hungarian farmers by not saying it's a Hungarian one... just joking). With this I want to symbolise the need for creative thinking on this issue, so that people not much acquainted with the subject can for a start visualise something else than the image of flame-throwers annihilating endless seas of poppy fields when thinking about the war on drugs.
Here's a quote about the currently on-going Operation Silicon in Sangin Valley, where mostly British, but also American, Dutch, Danish, Estonian and Canadian troops are doing the fighting: "The troops are also turning a blind eye to the poppy crop, which supplies most of the world's opium and heroin, for fear of antagonizing the many farmers who depend on it."
It is logical to ask: why, if that factor is so clearly taken into account in this case, are Americans insisting on forced poppy eradication in Uruzgan, not letting the Dutch have things there in their own way? In my review of the Uruzgan situation I also asked why, if the Dutch can't really hope to convince Americans about doing things differently, don't they just give up on the idea of trying to maintain their own strategy in Uruzgan. However, as an independent analyist, I already pointed to the possibility that the Americans may be trying to change, too. Here I'm going to argue that they very much should change indeed.
Poor farmers, with small farms producing most of the poppy in Afghanistan, are stuck in producing poppy because that's the easiest way to get credit in the informal Afghan banking system, as well as because poppy also serves for them as a kind of informal means of economic exchange, a currency, in parts of the country. No poppy, no economic viability, no credit - some say it's as simple as that. Poppy is also easy to grow, because it survives without much irrigation, and the latter factor is important. Agricultural infrastructure was badly hurt by Soviet counterinsurgency operations, badly hit in the internal wars following those, and Afghan agriculture in general was struck hard by droughts and wheat rust from the 1980s. If you destroy poor farmers' livelihood, you're probably not going to make progress. You're just hitting the soft target, just like a guerrilla does when he goes after civilian contractors and the likes of them.
The Taliban for instance is known to have shown restraint in not initiating fighting in the Sangin Valley this year, prior to Operation Silicon, in order to give the local population the chance to go ahead with the poppy harvest (see e.g. here). They profit from poppy, too, that's true, but they also must have been thinking of the importance of not hurting locals' interests, whose support they do need to an extent.
So, in the future posts on the subject I will look at other ways to deal with poppy cultivation. And I'll also consider criticisms of the following thesis I'll put forward here. That is: until the insurgency isn't over, or rather in areas where that is the case, poppy eradication should go ahead only in an inclusive process, by alternative means. Referring back to the point I made in my previous post about the trust to be earned, that is I think the way to go. And alternative means should also be considered elsewhere, where there's no fighting with forces of the Taliban. Anyone can be alienated by seeing his agricultural produce wiped out for the sake of rich kids in rich countries. Here's the following quote to consider, on the state of affairs in Nangarhar Province after eradication attempts in 2004 - and I'll finish on that note:
"Villagers estimated that 60 percent of Hafi Zan's economy had disappeared. The local mason, butcher and fruit seller have all gone out of business. 'Our village has lost almost all its income', said one of the elders in another village near the Pakistan border. 'We have no choice. This coming year (2005-2006) we will plant opium again and this time the whole tribe is agreed that we will fight...'"

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