Magazine article The Spectator

A Victory for Drug-Pushers

Magazine article The Spectator

A Victory for Drug-Pushers

Article excerpt

This week Tony Blair was warned to brace himself for another huge increase in opium production in Afghanistan. Analysis of a harrowing United Nations report showed that the situation was catastrophically out of control. Inspectors surveyed 134 districts. They learnt that some 23 were planning to plant poppies for the first time in 2003, while another 50 were expecting to increase production. There were some successes for Afghan government-led attempts at elimination. In 28 districts, poppy eradication schemes had worked and production was falling. But these falls were minor compared with rises elsewhere.

The report simply confirmed what UN officials have been saying privately for months. The Afghanistan poppy is on course for a massive harvest, bigger even than last year's bumper crop and perhaps set for an all-time record. This year's rise in production will have horrifying consequences. It means that the British street will be flooded with fresh supplies of cheap heroin manufactured from Afghan poppies. It means huge profits for the criminal mafia which runs this sordid trade, and has as Tony Glair has repeatedly insisted - provable links with al-Qa'eda and other terrorist groups. And it means huge embarrassment for the British government which, back in October 2001, cited Taleban poppy-growing as the major reason, alongside the threat of terrorism, for the invasion of Afghanistan.

Whether the war has done anything to keep terrorism in check remains an open question. But there is no doubt about the prodigious rise of poppy production in Afghanistan since 2001. The government's predicament is strikingly similar to the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, in the sense that it undermines the case for war in the first place.

Page 77 of this year's departmental report from the Foreign Office, published only last week, contains the following remarkable passage: 'The fall of the Taleban provided a unique opportunity to cut off one of the main sources of supply of heroin to the UK. Around 90 per cent of the heroin in the UK originates in Afghanistan.

'The Foreign Office has pledged to contribute to the reduction of opium cultivation in Afghanistan by 70 per cent in five years with complete elimination in ten years.'

Almost everything about this FCO statement, apart from the bald fact that the bulk of British heroin is imported from Afghanistan, is a nonsense. Far from leading to a cut-off in supply, the defeat of the Taleban has led directly to the arrival of tons of cut-price heroin on British streets.

The pledge to reduce opium cultivation by 70 per cent over five years was one of the public service agreements forced on the Foreign Office by Gordon Brown during the summer 2002 spending-round. The Chancellor insisted that the FCO 'reduce international crime, drugs and people-trafficking affecting the UK measured by Whitehall wide targets'. Like so many of the Chancellor's targets, these bore such a tenuous relation to reality that it is tempting to assume that he was on drugs when he set them. Rather than the 70 per cent fall in production that Whitehall officials fondly hope for, Afghanistan opium production has surged an astonishing 1,000 per cent since the end of the war, and is set to rise much further.

Two factors are behind this disastrous rise in production. The first is the overall failure of policy in Afghanistan since the end of the war just before Christmas 2001. Though Tony Blair made his famous pledge 'not to desert the Afghan people' in the aftermath of war, in practice the West has more or less done just that. This failure operates on two levels. The first is the lack of generosity with hard cash. Though the $5 billion offered in the donors' conference at Tokyo early last year sounds significant, in practice it was a negligible sum, much of it sucked up in emergency humanitarian relief in the early months following the war. It amounts to $42 per Afghan over the next five years. …

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