The narcotics problem is an economic one. So is the solution.
It didn’t quite get the attention it deserved, but 2006 was a bumper year for international economy for illicit drugs. The epicentre of this economy is Afghanistan; with Pakistan being the primary investor and trade-route. Maverick has pointed out that Indian authorities have made record seizures last year. Given the intricate linkages between the drugs trade, the jihadi trade and the Pakistani ISI’s modus operandi this carries disturbing portents for India’s national security.
The crux of the problem is simply this: the impoverished Afghan farmer has a strong economic incentive to plant opium poppy. Neither moralising nor the use of force to destroy and deter poppy farming is likely to work in the absence of any real alternative livelihoods. It is small wonder then, that counter-narcotics strategies pursued by Western forces and the Karzai government have not only failed, but have proved counterproductive [Related Link: on Registan.net].
A fresh approach would be to change the farmers’ economic incentives. That is exactly what the Senlis Council argues in a new proposal dubbed “poppies for peace”. At the heart of the proposal is a scheme to permit Afghan farmers to grow pharmaceutical-grade poppy under license, use it to produce low-cost morphine and codeine and sell it to developing countries and the developed world under preferential trade agreements. Initiatives to replace poppy with other cash crops like saffron and dry fruits and to revive the carpet-weaving industry will complement this effort. The Senlis Council has no illusions on the difficulties in making this work, but as it argues, it may well be the ‘only remaining alternative’ to solving the problem. [Related Link: Afghanistan may be sitting on oil & gas reserves]
India should lend its support to this initiative. It has surprisingly maintained a diplomatic silence on the other economic factor that lies behind the Afghan drug problem—Pakistan’s refusal to open up the transit trade route to India. It is difficult to see how the Afghan economy can be revitalised unless it has access to its traditional market—India. As long as Pakistan blocks Afghan farmers from selling their produce in Indian markets, their addiction to opium poppies will be difficult to break. It is time for India to break its silence and make counter-narcotics a key priority of its Afghanistan policy.