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Westminster Hall

Wednesday 11 July 2007

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Poppy Crops (Afghanistan)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Alan Campbell.]

9.30 am

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to work under your stewardship, Mr. Hancock, and a delight to have the opportunity to open the debate. With Afghanistan and Iraq dominating our headlines, it is important that hon. Members get the opportunity to place on record their concerns and thoughts.

The challenges that face Afghanistan are immense, but I have deliberately selected one issue for us to consider. I shall therefore refrain from commenting on the size of the NATO force, which I believe is too small, and avoid mentioning the lack of co-ordination between the reconstruction agencies and the absence of a lead figure to unite operations. I shall instead focus on opium production and its link with insurgency. I should also like to put forward a possible solution—a proposal that I should very much like the Government to consider.

I shall first give some background. Progress has been slow in the five years since allied forces entered Afghanistan. The limited size of NATO’s forces, some of which are hampered by caveats, prevents the country from having the umbrella of security needed for a reconstruction operation of large enough scale to take effect. That is hampering the allied development and reconstruction efforts to improve the lives of many rural Afghans.

I do not wish to take away from the many success stories in Afghanistan, particularly in the north and west. A number of schools have been reopened and radio stations formed. Indeed, wind-up radios have been handed out in various communities to allow better communication with locals. Alternative livelihood programmes have been rolled out along with improvements to roads and transport. [Interruption.]

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Order. It must be a mobile phone causing that problem. If somebody still has their phone on, may I ask them to turn it off? You do not all have to rush to your pockets at once. Mr. Evans looks like a guilty candidate. He has just grabbed his phone.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Not guilty, Sir!

Mr. Ellwood: I believe that it may have been me rather than my hon. Friend.

Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair): Very gallant of you, Mr. Ellwood.

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Mr. Ellwood: There have been advances in some areas, and we should pay tribute to the work that has been done. Unfortunately it is limited to parts of the country, and many people are forced to survive in the only way they know—by growing poppies. Failure to address the impact of the poppy trade has led to a revival of the Taliban, who profit from it.

The west and the international community have been slow to acknowledge the link between insurgency and poppy cultivation, even five years after entering Afghanistan. In the report that came from the previous NATO summit in Riga in November, there was one small paragraph that mentioned poppies. It stated:

which was a good start, but it simply went on

I do not believe that that is good enough, and nor do many others. General James Jones, the former head of NATO, saw poppy crops as “Afghanistan’s Achilles heel”.

Some of the agencies that have been put together to try to combat narcotics operations in Afghanistan look good on paper. From the international perspective, there is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which is simply a monitoring and information service. It does not do anything to tackle drugs operations, it simply reports on what is happening. There is the Counter-narcotics police of Afghanistan, but it is only 1000-strong in a country the size of Spain. There is the Afghan eradication force, which is a successor to the central poppy eradication force, but it is only 700-strong.

There are various poppy elimination programme teams—about a dozen eight to 10-man teams that are spread around the country—but their impact is limited. There is also the Afghan special narcotics force, but that is also small considering the scale of the problem that it is confronting. From a financial perspective there is the counter-narcotics trust fund, which allows the international community to pour money into Afghanistan to combat narcotics. The structure is there, but it is far too small to deal with the scale of the problem that we face.

Mr. Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there has been a failure to think about how our aid policy can provide alternative jobs, which is a crucial part of countering both the insurgency and the growing of poppies? A policy of merely destroying the poppy crop can itself be a recruiting agent for the Taliban, whereas a strategy that tries to put jobs in place through an aid policy would not only counter that but extend the authority of the central Government.

Mr. Ellwood: The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I pay tribute to his work on the matter. Eradicating crops is pointless unless there is an alternative for the farmers to pursue, otherwise we simply deny them their livelihoods and encourage them to look for another immediate source to put food on the tables to feed their families. That pushes them in the direction of the Taliban, which is exactly what we do not want.

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Mr. Evans: Does my hon. Friend accept that one problem is that the project against poppy and drug production is Afghan-led? Corruption takes place at every level in a country as large and poor as Afghanistan. Even the police say that they earn only $70 a month. Their power to choose which fields to eradicate means that the wrong fields are being put out of production.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend makes an important point. On my visits to Afghanistan, I have been astonished at the levels of corruption that I have seen. We cannot be surprised, considering the decades of war that we have witnessed there. We cannot expect Afghanistan to turn overnight into a civilised, democratic society. That will not happen. If we look back at our own history, we will see that it took some time for us to wean out all forms of corruption, and it sadly exists at all levels in Afghanistan—local, regional and national.

I have seen reports that up to 17 of the 249 members of the lower house of the Afghan Parliament are former warlords and still benefit from the drugs trade. That problem will not disappear, and it is difficult for President Karzai to balance and to maintain the peace. If those people are not somehow included in reconciliation, they may challenge the Government and cause more problems.

Mr. Frank Field: Does the hon. Gentleman limit the corruption to Afghanistan? Is it not also in this country? Our failure to combat the war against the poppy trade effectively is having an effect here. There is corruption here, including in our prisons.

Mr. Ellwood: The right hon. Gentleman teases me to wander into an area that is beyond the scope of the debate, but it is important. Some 95 per cent. of the heroin that enters this country comes from Afghanistan. There is a market here for it, so there is a degree of corruption here for us to challenge.

Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan now accounts for about 50 per cent. of the country’s gross domestic product—about $3.1 billion. With no recognisable domestic market infrastructure, the black market is seen in many provinces as the only market. It is an interesting observation that in areas controlled by the Afghan Government, backed by the international community, production is either decreasing or stable, but where insurgency is strongest, it is for the most part increasing. That increase is staggering: Afghanistan now accounts for 92 per cent. of the world’s opium production. Last year, production grew by some 60 per cent., and, in Helmand province, by an amazing 169 per cent. UNODC reports show that around 109,000 acres are cultivated every year, and only about 5,000 acres are eradicated. We are not winning the war through eradication.

That approach also fails to win over the hearts and minds of farmers who view opium cultivation as their only reliable source of income.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): My hon. Friend makes some good points about winning hearts and minds. Does he agree that there is an essential difference between the approach of the United States,
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which seems to involve slash and burn, in many cases rather thoughtlessly planned and imposed, and the Afghan-advised policy of a much more targeted campaign against poppy crops, and that that dichotomy is dangerous and plays precisely into the hands of the Taliban?

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend, who is very knowledgeable about these matters, makes a valid point. We have seen an open argument between the United States and Britain on that very issue. I got the impression, having visited Washington in April, that the Americans are coming around to our way of thinking. They are now realising—unfortunately, through experience—that they are not winning hearts and minds by eradicating crops and thinking that the tough-stick approach will work. They are realising that there needs to be an alternative if we are to win that battle.

Certainly, in parts of Afghanistan, including Helmand province, our present strategy is failing for exactly the reason that my hon. Friend illustrates. The absence of security, the proximity to the border, the scale of corruption and the limited options for farmers mean that the challenge gets bigger each year. We have allowed Helmand province to become the supreme poppy grower of the world, responsible for producing one third of the planet’s heroin.

It is time for a rethink. It is time for the Government to regroup and to consider the matter again. Perhaps the Minister can confirm whether Britain remains the G8 lead nation for the counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan. We have 7,000 troops in Helmand province. They are well placed to lead any new initiative, and the current $1 billion spent on counter-narcotics could be better utilised. I wish to make a proposal in that respect.

Hon. Members will be aware that poppies can be turned into not only heroin but several recognised medicinal products, including diamorphine and codeine. Ironically, there is a shortage of diamorphine in this country. I found that out through a parliamentary question. Indeed, an established UN-licensed poppy scheme is already up and running in places such as Turkey and India. However, I do not believe that that should be a long-term goal for Afghanistan, and that is where I differ from several other interested bodies that have expressed thoughts on the matter.

The current situation in Afghanistan is too unstable for us to have any long-term licensing systems up and running. That would just lead to an increase in counter-narcotics. The scale of the problem would be uncontrollable. However, there is a way of temporarily honing the concept. If we were to visit Lashkar Gar and find a metal factory that was turning out guns, would we destroy the factory, or would we say to the people, “Why don’t you make tractor parts or something else?” The same applies to the poppy growers. They are able to make opium and heroin, but they can certainly make other products that could be of benefit to the international community.

I propose inviting farmers to sign up to a six-year programme. Each year, they would be required to replace one sixth of their poppy crop with another product. That would be repeated every year, eventually
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weaning them off poppy cultivation completely. Markets would need to be established to purchase the poppy crops and the alternative produce. Poppies would be turned into medicinal products locally and then exported. Farmers who failed to sign up to the programme would face immediate eradication of their poppy fields.

The proposal involves a carrot-and-stick approach. It must be introduced with the support of the local jirgas, which are the power bases in the towns and villages—something that has been ignored up to this point in the rolling out of democracy across the country.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): Trying to think ahead, does my hon. Friend recognise that if his ingenious scheme were put into practice, the first reaction of the Taliban, who used to suppress the poppy crop when they were in power but now put themselves forward as the defender of the poppy farmers because they know that that rallies support for the insurgency, would be to offer a different sort of stick? Anyone who signed up to the scheme would face a different sort of eradication—personal eradication.

Mr. Ellwood: My hon. Friend makes a valid point. Indeed, there are several pitfalls, which I shall come on to. To answer his question immediately, the present remit of the international security assistance force is not to go anywhere near poppy crops. They are strictly forbidden to get involved with eradication of crops. That points up the lack of a co-ordinated strategy. Were a farmer to sign up to the scheme, the next thing that he would need to do is to have his plot of land somehow electronically labelled so that from the air it would be identified as part of the programme and therefore be encompassed by a security package. Then, the farmer would get not only protection from ISAF, but support such as improved irrigation systems from the non-governmental organisations and other operators that are in the area. At present, there is no co-ordination of any of that. If one were to ask any farmer whether they owned a strip of land that had poppies on it, the farmer would completely deny that they did. The first thing is to get the farmers on board.

My hon. Friend was absolutely right to point to that pitfall. Another challenge would be price elevation. The Taliban may well offer more money for crops. We need to face those issues. I suggest that the problems could be overcome by implementing my proposal, but it needs to be tested in a pilot scheme. That is what I am proposing today.

The important point is that, in the long term, we would deny terrorists the benefits from the sale of opium, and we would free farmers from the clutches of the Taliban. Almost half the country’s opium is produced in Helmand province, yet at present the eradication programme there is limited and there are hardly any alternative livelihood schemes in operation. There is no support for farmers whatever. Given that Britain has responsibility for security in Helmand province, it is well placed to conduct a pilot scheme such as I suggest.

The cumulative amount of European Union money, United States aid money and British money spent each year is about $1 billion. I believe that my scheme would
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cost in the region of $50 million to $100 million, which is one tenth of what is currently being spent. As we have seen from the year-on-year increases, the $1 billion is not very effective, but, if the pilot project were successful, it could be replicated in other provinces across the country.

As I said, financial support would be given to farmers. They would be freed from the clutches of the Taliban. The scheme would raise taxes for the Government, cut off the clandestine links, most of which are with Pakistan, and threaten the income of terrorists.

I do not believe that long-term licensing is feasible. We need a short-term solution, but one that will help farmers, provide them with a path without challenging their income, and, in several years’ time, lead to their growing the produce that they once were able to grow on a vast scale. Afghanistan had an international reputation for providing the world with pomegranates, peaches and dried fruits. In fact, it was one of the greenest areas in east Asia. That was prior to 1979, when the Soviets moved in. They realised that if they smashed the irrigation systems, they would cause so much pain to the locals that they would then become subservient to their new masters.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The hon. Gentleman’s proposal is interesting. I agree that exploring the alternative of licensing production for licit morphine and diamorphine purposes is attractive, but has he considered the consequences for the farmers themselves and the comparable incomes for licit production as opposed to illicit production of opium? How does he propose encouraging farmers to engage in the lawful type of production if the income for it is significantly less?

Mr. Ellwood: The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. The bottom line is that many farmers want to free themselves from the clutches of the Taliban. A pilot scheme would show that and certainly the farmers whom I met in Lashkar Gar want to be part of the community and to give up the subservience that they have to the terrorists. The farmers realise that that must be the case. We need to establish what the market price will be, but the billions of dollars that are spent every year will clearly have to prop up the market for some time.

The prices of the goods and the produce of which I am talking are certainly comparable in some areas. Some prices will be lower, but tonne for tonne, more money can be got for peaches than for poppies. We should say to farmers, “Come forward. Put out your hand and state, ‘This is my field’. We will buy your poppy crops off you in the first year, but we will help to double the size of your area if you plant another crop”. In the long term, farmers would actually gain more money, but they would also be free and be part of the community. We certainly get the impression that that is what they want. If farmers were not keen to remove the link between themselves and the Taliban and were content to receive the money and to continue living the existence that they have, this entire proposal would not be possible.

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