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>> The Financial Times


OPIUM DIPLOMACY

The Financial Times - February 7, 2009 by Tony Barber Ever since it looked probable that Barack Obama would win last year's US presidential election, European governments have fretted about how they would react if, upon taking office, he asked them for a bigger military contribution to the US-led war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. The war isn't going down well with European public opinion, especially in Germany and Italy. On the other hand, you can hardly say No to the man you were desperate to see replace George W. Bush in the Oval Office. Perhaps Europeans have been asking themselves the wrong question. Evidence is growing that Obama will rethink US policies and recognise that there are more desirable - and achievable - goals in Afghanistan than traditional military victory. The appointment of Richard Holbrooke as the special US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and of Karl Eikenberry as the next US ambassador to Kabul, is part of this picture. Eikenberry, a career military man, is also a scholar and linguist with deep knowledge of Asian affairs. William Wood, outgoing ambassador, has been nicknamed "Chemical Bill" because of his insistence that spraying poppy fields is the best way to tackle Afghanistan's rampant heroin business. Afghanistan accounts for more than 90 per cent of the world's heroin supply. Its annual opium harvest is worth up to $3bn, or almost half the country's official gross domestic product. Profits from heroin fund the Taliban - and line the pockets of corrupt Afghan officials. Holbrooke knows all this. In a damning newspaper article on January 23, he said the US counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan "may be the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy". So what's the answer? A radical solution is for the US and its European allies to buy up the entire Afghan opium crop every year and turn much of it over for medical purposes around the world. This would not only starve the Taliban of money and undermine global organised crime, it could even improve western relations with Iran. For according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the world's 11m heroin addicts include no fewer than 1.6m in Iran, all dependent on supplies flowing from neighbouring Afghanistan. General David Petraeus, the head of the US military's Central Command, observed last month that the Iranians "don't want to see the narcotics problem get worse. In fact, they want to see it reduced. It's a huge issue in Iran." Quite a few Nato commanders are adamantly against what would be an unconventional approach to the Afghan crisis. But the idea may appeal to Holbrooke and to some of his European friends, such as Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister. One thing is certain. Fail to break the narco-state in Afghanistan, and no military policy the west dreams up will bring it long-term stability.





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