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

Thursday, July 26, 2007

The 'but' in 'discussions are good, but...'

MStFB back from vacation, and back to the poppy for medicine issue
Back from vacation, I have a fever now, and I don't really like it, as you can imagine. So I'll try to make this comeback post shorter than I could have it otherwise. Those of you who have followed what's been going on on this blog recently, will know that I have, just before leaving for a writing break, written a review of the Senlis Council's poppy for medicine scheme - the technical dossier that came out the previous month.
A friend of mine, Péter Wagner, has just yesterday drawn my attention to a recent article in Canada's Embassy magazine, on the Senlis Council. It is informative (especially for someone who hasn't up till now been familiar with the Senlis Council and their work), but it also carelessly reinforces certain very ill-founded suggestions about SC's work.
"Some will wonder whether the group has ties to large pharmaceutical companies," the author, Lee Berthiaume, claims right in the second paragraph. Well, I certainly won't wonder at this point. As anyone who made the effort to read the above mentioned technical dossier will know, its content is not exactly something that big pharmaceutical companies involved in the production of pain-killers will exactly love. And so repeating such a claim without critical remarks is not really careful, that's what I mean. Even if the author is not siding with that view, citing it like that will raise suspicion.
But this aspect of the article itself is not the only thing that is problematic here.
A longer excerpt this time: " Christopher Alexander, the UN deputy special representative of the secretary-general for Afghanistan, said the non-government organization had been "extremely effective in taking their message to Afghan farmers," which was creating tensions between the population, the Afghan government and NATO forces. "You start to wonder which side they're on," he said. "I'm not pleading for the Senlis Council to give up its role as a strong, independent voice of civil society, but we do need to get our act together to rally around a single policy of counter-narcotics." "
The problem I'm pointing to, of course, is that this 'getting our act together to rally around a single policy' may be interpreted in a worrying way. Interpreted as rejecting a really open discussion of an issue that is certainly very important for Afghans in general.
Of course it would be interesting to know details on what Christopher Alexander means by hinting at the Senlis Council's activities in Afghanistan. Since SC has two of its three offices in the south of Afghanistan, in Lashkar Gah and Kandahar, if I in good faith take Mr Alexander's words for granted, I can imagine that communicating to farmers about poppy legalisation can have a destabilising effect, with the eradication going ahead there parallel to it. Even then, however, that is the rather short-sighted eradication in insurgency-hit areas that I've never approved of on this site, and the talk of the possibility of an alternative approach by the Senlis Council together, that can be destabilising, so SC would be sharing the blame for that then, and not take it entirely on its own.
Anyway, I would still be inclined to say that one shouldn't go ahead with suggesting an alternative of this kind to farmers as long as it hasn't even been tried and made to work in the north of Afghanistan. We should really be focusing on the north more if we seriously want to make a change in Afghanistan. With all the talk by some countries' leadership, e.g. in the Netherlands, of the need for a more reconstruction-oriented 'ink blot' approach for Afghanistan, we should finally see that it's the insurgency-free areas where we should look for creating a possible ink blot really.
But even so I don't like the 'but' in 'discussions are good, but...', given how there is a more general backlash, especially from U.S. circles, against what the Senlis Council is doing (if you look at SC's background it is a bit of a Euro-American clash again, one feels). As renowned expert Barnett Rubin, who has recently started blogging himself, too, is saying, quoted in the already cited article: "The Senlis Council has carried out valuable research on various aspects for the situation in Afghanistan and particularly on the damaging effects of the way counter-narcotics policy is implemented there. (...) I have yet to be convinced by their proposals for licensing of opium, but they are constantly developing and modifying these proposals in the light of discussions and new information. "I wish that the Senlis Council's critics would devote as much energy to trying to find innovative solutions to the narcotics problem in Afghanistan as they do to criticizing the Senlis Council's proposals."
Dr. Rubin, by the way, right in his first blogpost over at Informed Comment, recalled with some noticeable sadness this: "Recently I attended an off-the-record meeting outside of Washington. At this meeting officials from many parts of the US government (but not the Department of Agriculture) met to discuss counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan. I learned many things. I learned that Afghan farmers are too secure and are making too much money. That is why it is necessary to eradicate their crops. But no one at this meeting mentioned that 40 percent of the families in rural Afghanistan do not have enough food to eat, though they can easily find someone with an automatic weapon to "protect" them. I suggested that maybe Afghan farmers needed more rather than less security, but no one wants to reward bad behavior like growing opium poppies".
This is certainly something that needs to be debated, unless we see some overwhelming success as a result of eradication campaigns any time soon, which I don't exactly see as likely. I could point to a whole series of issues on which my views and those voiced in some of Senlis Council's papers diverge, but surely it's not legitimate for me or anyone to say I don't even need to argue with what they are proposing regarding this or that question. And guess what? As any thinking bunch of people, they are bound to have remarkable ideas, too.

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