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It’s poppycock to grow crops here but destroy them in Afghanistan
Why pay our farmers to produce opium while Afghan poppy crops are razed, asks Boris Johnson.
Mayor of London, Member of British Parliament, Oxford Graduate in Greek. Earns 250,000 pounds a year for writing this kind of articles in the right wing newspaper The Telegraph, says the money is «chicken feed». 13 Jul 2009
We are nearing the end of the season for the big ornamental poppies that flower all over South Oxfordshire, the area I used to represent in parliament. The petals have fallen to the ground, pink and purple and red. But I expect the seed-pods are still standing tall. If you take a sharp knife to one of those seed-pods, and make a careful diagonal incision, you will see a white latex ooze out. What is that gunk? That is opium, my friend; and the reason there are so many giant poppies all over that part of England is that the seeds have been blown in the wind or carried in the guts of birds. They have come from the farms. We actually grow opium there, and we grow it officially.
At direct government urgings, there are large tracts of land that are given over to the cultivation of the palaver somniferum, (Gran error: Papaver somniferum) for the very good reason that the opium is essential for the NHS. When we die of cancer, or when we are carried off in any other mortal agony, our final miseries are invariably palliated by opiates, in the form of morphine or diamorphine, and indeed our respiration is typically suppressed by these drugs in a vast and unadmitted programme of humane killing.
Given this reality, and given the desperate shortage of analgesic drugs that has occasionally hit the health service, opium has entered the repertoire of UK cash crops. So how would you feel, if you were sitting back on your terrace in Oxfordshire, and looking out at the poppies waving in the fields, and you heard the thugga-thugga-thugga of Apache helicopters? Suppose these helicopters were to disgorge hundreds [ ☼ ] of dark-glass-wearing US troops, who were to advance with flame-throwers and defoliants through the fields, destroying all the vegetation they could see. I put it to you that you would be exceedingly hacked off if you were a farmer. You would be most unlikely to sense the slightest friendliness towards those Americans or to the troops of any other country involved in the destruction. And yet that is of course the policy to which we are at least notionally committed in Afghanistan.
There are several respects in which the Afghan war has not yet been successful, in the past eight years. We have not captured or killed Osama bin Laden. We have not crushed the Taliban. We have not created a stable and democratic nation-state. But there is one sector of the Afghan economy that has positively boomed since 2001, and that is poppy production. Before we kicked out the Taliban, the crop was deemed un-Islamic, and production fell virtually to zero. Since the unleashing of the War on Terror, combined with the War on Drugs, the figures have been astonishing. Only 15 per cent of Afghanistan is arable, and yet more of that land is now under poppy than ever before. The illegal opium trade now accounts for about 52 per cent of the Afghan economy, about $3 billion a year in revenues, and about 90 per cent of the world supply of heroin. With that kind of money at stake, it is no wonder that the Karzai government is said to have become hopelessly corrupt.
No one has a real interest in stamping it out. The politicians are on the take. The Taliban use drugs money to finance their operations. American, British and other Nato forces have come to realise that eradication programmes risk deepening local poverty and losing the very «hearts and minds» they are there to win.
With the Taliban resurgent, and with British casualties mounting, and with more illegal opium being grown than ever before, it is time to look again at one obvious solution. Surely we should be pursuing the argument first proposed three years ago by the Senlis council: to see if we can work with Afghan villages and farmers to develop a legitimate medical market for their crops. We have an ageing Western population; we are making infinite advances in fighting disease and in prolonging life. We are therefore going to be in need of ever more painkilling drugs. The people of Afghanistan have shown they can grow those drugs in quantity. Surely we should be helping them to turn those poppies into medicine.
To put it at its bluntest: why are we paying our farmers to grow poppies in Oxfordshire, and paying our soldiers to destroy them in Afghanistan? Be in no doubt that what British troops are doing in Helmand is heroic, and it is very far from futile. If Nato forces pulled out, the Taliban would probably overrun Kabul in three weeks, with catastrophic consequences for Pakistan and for global stability.
That is why we need them there, and that is why they deserve to be properly armed and protected.
That is why they need better domestic support than the bizarre fence-sitting of the Liberal Democrats, who simultaneously claim to be in favour of the Helmand operation while cunningly playing to their anti-war constituency by criticising its handling. Nick Clegg either believes we should pull out, or else that the operation needs more men and material. He should have the guts to say one or the other, and stop faffing around.
But it would also help our mission if our strategy was more closely aligned with the real economic interests of Afghanistan. We have utterly failed to stamp out the opium crop – quite the reverse. Let us help the Afghans to obtain what legal value they can from their poppies.
No one should pretend that this solution is easy, or that it is complete. As long as heroin is illegal in most jurisdictions (for the foreseeable future, that is), the price of illegal opium will probably be higher than the legal crop, and the drugs barons will not be entirely undermined. But we should at least try an option that offers the world cheaper pain relief, and the Afghans a viable legal alternative for their harvest. Nothing else seems to be working.
From Homer to Flanders Fields, poppies have symbolised the sacrifice of soldiers (Gran error:: La flor roja, el ababol, que crece en los trigales europeos es la Papaver rhoeas y no produce opio). The tragedy is that the illegal production of this flower is now funding the killing of British troops. We need a better use for it.
[ ☼ ] If Apache helicopters were to disgorge hundreds of dark- glass-wearing US troups it would be a disaster as they only hold 1 pilot and 1 flight commander. I have sat in one. Clearly you have not.
☼ Para saber más. Las Guerras del Opio. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Opium_War