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London conference neglects Afghanistan's opium problem

RIA Novosti


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin) - Like every other Afghanistan conference, the sixth conference in London on January 28 did not discuss the country's opium problem.

The more than 70 countries and international organizations that met in London have declared the goals of creating "a more stable and secure Afghanistan," transferring power to the Afghan government, and reintegrating "those who renounce violence, cut links to terrorism and agree to work within the democratic process" into Afghan society.

However, refusing to discuss Afghanistan's opium problem is like discussing reconciliation in Colombia without touching on the cocaine trade which has sustained rebels for a long time.

The United States and Britain do not like to discuss heroin at international conferences, and they do not like it when Russia tries to convince them to launch major anti-drug projects in Afghanistan and adjacent regions. Russia is pursuing this mostly because the Afghan connection has become a strategic threat to Russia, as the Central Asian countries' borders with Afghanistan are completely unprotected.

The Western stance on the issue could be justified, because the struggle against drugs calls for a delicate touch and perfect organization, and is better waged silently. Nobody can contest this truth. On the other hand, there is one more reason for the unwillingness to consider Afghanistan's drug problem.

Not much has been done to cleanse it of drugs in the eight years since the deployment of the coalition troops in the country. In fact, progress in the matter is strange, with one step forward and two steps back or even sideways.

All drug experts, including those focused on Afghanistan, claim that the goals of settlement and reintegration cannot be achieved even if the country had an ideal government consisting of perfectly honest people. They say that the situation has gone too far for that, that drugs have become an inalienable part of life in Afghanistan, a disease that cannot be treated by therapeutic methods.

To better understand the problem, it should be divided into several elements - poppy cultivation (fields sown with opium poppy), opium (initial processing) and heroin (the end product). But even these statistical breakdowns will not be entirely accurate, with an estimated error of 10%-20%. It is impossible to accurately measure the area sown with opium poppy in Afghanistan, or the opium and heroin output.

Since the latest Afghanistan conference was held in London, I propose considering the issue with the example of Britain's sector of responsibility, the south-western Helmand province.

According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, which collects data during the spring sowing season, areas sown with opium poppy in Helmand decreased by 33% last year, to 70,000 hectares (172,970 acres), which is still a lot. Poppy fields were cut by 22% country-wide.

These data could be presented as an achievement of the anti-drug effort, but unfortunately drug technology has also improved.

The UN data also shows that the opium poppy fields were larger last year than in 2006 when U.K. troops were deployed in Helmand.

Although the country's opium poppy areas decreased by 22%, the production of raw opium fell by only 10% if not less. British experts have established that Afghan farmers have learned to produce more opium juice per poppy than a year ago, 56 kilograms of opium per hectare (2.47 acres), 15% more than a year ago.

The opium lords have enough money to introduce modern technology to increase output. According to UN data, the drug business in Afghanistan is estimated at between $3.6 billion and $4.2 billion annually.

The Taliban leadership and field commanders are like Siamese twins with the opium business, following in the footsteps of Colombia. Initially, the Colombian guerrillas protected drug traffickers and dealers, but then they started to protect their factories, and eventually gained control of the drug business. This is logical, as revenues are higher without intermediaries.

The example of Colombia shows that the drug business very quickly erodes the ideological basis of any anti-government, anti-occupation and any other protest movement, leaving nothing but the shell - slogans.

The same has happened in Afghanistan. According to British sources, the overwhelming majority of the Taliban prisoners admit that they receive the bulk of their funds for food, fuel and weapons from the drug business. The British say that the Taliban annually earn more than $100 million from the drug business, which they spend on their movement and Al-Qaeda operations.

The price of raw opium has fallen to $48 per kilo, yet this is only proof of the failure of U.S. and British anti-drug policies. (Afghan authorities themselves have no opportunity to administer such policies.)

The Taliban has accumulated approximately 10,000 tons of opium over the last few years, while annual global consumption is about 5,000 tons. In other words, the Taliban can afford to reduce opium poppy fields because they have two years' worth of opium. When its stocks diminish, they will increase the areas again. This is market economy, whether one likes it or not.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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