Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Europe, Headlines, Middle East & North Africa

EU-AFGHANISTAN: A Country Seen as a Drugs Factory

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, May 21 2007 (IPS) - When archive material showing Osama bin Laden hiding in an underground fortress is aired on Western news bulletins, the perception that Afghanistan is a lawless periphery is reinforced.

Still, European parents concerned about their children having access to lethal drugs may have good reason to fear that crops cultivated in Afghanistan can end up too close to home for their comfort. About 90 percent of the heroin sold in Western Europe derives from opium poppies grown in Afghanistan.

Not surprisingly, then, the fight against drugs has been one of the main preoccupations of the officials tasked with drafting the European Union’s aid plans for the country over the past few years.

Chris Patten, former EU commissioner for external relations, has written about the frustration he experienced after his 2003 pledge to spend 1 billion euros (1.3 billion dollars) over a five-year period in Afghanistan. In his book Not Quite The Diplomat, Patten notes that the income of Afghan warlords exceeded the development aid that the internal community spent to help the country reconstruct itself in the initial post-Taliban period.

The situation does not appear to have improved since then. A recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says that the 2007 opium harvest may not be lower than the bumper one of 165,000 hectares in 2006. Last year’s harvest was a 59 percent rise over the previous season.

The EU has made a commitment to provide 600 million euros (810 million dollars) of development aid to Afghanistan in 2007-10.

In its country strategy paper for Afghanistan, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, describes the drugs trade as the “primary threat to stable political development,” and says there is a risk that the state institutions could be held captive by drug traders.

Although EU officials say they are exploring how to help poor farmers in Afghanistan find a different source of income to the opium poppy trade, they insist that no system for promoting alternatives can take root without a functioning rule of law.

For that reason, the officials say, the EU is funding both rural development and law enforcement schemes. The European Commission and the British government are the principal donors to an international trust fund to support counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan.

Some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) query, however, whether the EU is right to be financing the eradication of opium poppies. The Kabul authorities have given responsibility for eradication to regional governors, who rely on international finance.

“The EU should stay out of the eradication process,” said Tom Kramer from the Transnational Institute in The Netherlands, which monitors international policies on drugs. “Eradication threatens the livelihoods of opium farmers and should not take place unless they have other sources of income. Where eradication has taken place, it has affected the poorest farmers. There has been no eradication where the target has been farmers with a better access to livelihoods.

“There are no quick fixes,” he told IPS. “Production will not be brought down in two or three years. It will take 10 or 20 years.”

About 85 percent of Afghanistan’s 28 million inhabitants rely on agriculture, yet severe droughts are limiting their choice of crops. The provinces of Kunduz, Takhar and Baghlan are traditionally considered the country’s food basket, producing wheat, rice, melons and other fruit and vegetables. But because the land has been parched the yields of such crops have plummeted.

Kramer said that aid to Afghanistan needs to focus more on irrigation to address the underlying causes of why farmers are growing opium poppies.

U.S. officials are known to be mulling the possibility of using toxic chemicals to destroy opium poppies in Afghanistan, as they have previously done with coca, the raw ingredient for cocaine, in Colombia.

While EU officials have criticised the aerial fumigation funded by the U.S. in Colombia – which caused damage to human health and the environment, rather than reducing coca cultivation – Kramer said there are indications some European governments such as Britain may support a similar spraying campaign in Afghanistan.

With the World Bank calculating that 3.5 million Afghans can be considered extremely poor and another 10.5 million vulnerable to extreme poverty, nobody doubts that Afghanistan needs substantial international assistance.

Yet because of the central role it has assumed in the war against terrorism, anti-poverty campaigners are troubled that agenda for raising aid to Afghanistan may be driven more by narrow political considerations than a concern for its poor.

A new study by the European NGO Confederation for Relief and Development (CONCORD) points out that more than 60 percent of the increase in total development assistance from rich countries in 2001-04 went to Afghanistan, Iraq and Congo. Collectively, the three recipients are home to less than three percent of all poor people in developing countries.

The financing of law enforcement activities – including those targeting drugs – does not fall under internationally agreed definitions on development aid. These definitions are set by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a 30-country grouping with its headquarters in Paris.

Angela Haynes from the British Overseas NGOs for Development (BOND) said that if the Union is to finance anti-drug measures, the money used must be separate from its development aid.

“There are individuals within the Commission that feel justified in using the funds which they have at their disposal to further political and anti-terrorist objectives,” she told IPS. “We believe that these political objectives should not form part of the rationale for development aid.

“We are arguing very strongly that EU development funds should be very much focused on the alleviation and eradication of poverty. Some of the concerns we have raised have been taken on board. But we can’t be complacent yet.”

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