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Legalize it

Why destroy poppies -- and Afghan farmers -- when the world needs legal opiates?

November 06, 2006|Johann Hari | JOHANN HARI (johannhari.com) is a columnist for the Independent in London.

JAMILLA NIAZI is a 40-year-old woman with a freckly face and high cheekbones. When she arrives in a refugee camp in Helmand province in southern Afghanistan to speak to me via Internet camera phone, her features are hidden behind the blue burka she is forced to wear in the scorching summer heat. She peels back the gauze and smiles. She doesn't do this much anymore -- not since the death threats began to come every night, pledging to burn her in acid. To jihadis, Niazi has committed an intolerable offense: She is the head teacher of a school for girls.

"The Taliban have come back," says the aid worker with Niazi. "They control this area now."

The night before our conversation, they burned down a school in nearby Nabili, and Taliban fighters even planted a landmine in the playground of another girls' school. They may be coming for Niazi next.

One main thing has brought the Taliban back to life to terrorize Afghanistan's women: drugs. Or, more accurately, George W. Bush's war on them.

This summer, Emmanuel Reinert, executive director of the Senlis Council, an independent, Brussels-based think tank, commissioned more than 30 researchers to ask why so many southern Afghans were turning to the Taliban when they had cheered their defeat just five years ago. He found that "the Taliban revival is directly, intimately related to the [poppy] crop eradication program. It could not have happened if the U.S. was not aggressively destroying crops. This is the single biggest reason Afghans turned against the foreigners."

The Afghan people are rebelling because the U.S. government is currently committed to destroying 60% of their economy. In the name of the "war on drugs," a U.S. corporation, Dyncorp, is being paid to barge into the fields of some of the poorest people in the world and systematically destroy their only livelihood.

These Afghans are growing poppies -- from which heroin is derived -- out of need, not greed. A quarter of all Afghan babies die before their fifth birthday. The Senlis Council warns that if Western governments continue this program of economic destruction -- and the negative propaganda bonanza it creates -- the Taliban may be sufficiently rejuvenated to march on Kabul, depose President Hamid Karzai and pin up a "Welcome home, Mr. Bin Laden" banner.

There is an alternative to this disastrous spiral. The world is suffering from a shortage of legal opiates. The World Health Organization describes it as "an unprecedented global pain crisis." About 80% of the world's population has almost no access to these painkillers at all. Even in developed countries, for cancer care alone there is an unmet annual need for 550 metric tons more opium to make morphine.

Afghan farmers continue to produce the stuff, only to be made into criminals because of it. Meanwhile, in a Kabul hospital, half the patients who need opiates are thrashing about in agony because they can't get them, while in fields only a few miles away opium crops are being hacked to pieces.

The solution is simple. Instead of destroying Afghanistan's most valuable resource, Western governments should buy it outright and resell it to producers of legal opiate-based painkillers on the global market. Instead of confronting Afghan farmers about their crop, our representatives should be approaching them with hard cash.

This has been successfully tried before. In the early 1970s, the Nixon administration began to demand that the opium farmers of southern Turkey destroy their crops. Every attempt at destruction -- carried out by reluctant Turkish prime ministers coerced with threats of cuts in U.S. military aid -- failed. Eventually, Turkey was considered to be such a crucial Cold War ally that the U.S. granted it an exception. So Turkey joined India as a legal supplier of opiates for pain-control purposes, and it remains so today. Isn't Afghanistan even more important today than Turkey was in the 1970s?

It is a strange truth that if President Bush really wants to live up to his rhetoric about saving Afghanistan, he must urgently launch the biggest drug deal in history.

Niazi knows what will happen if he doesn't. In a low, sad voice, she says, "My school will be destroyed forever." She pauses. "All women love their freedom. Who wants to be a prisoner and to be illiterate? Not Afghan women.... You promised you would not let this happen to us again. You promised."

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