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11 July 2007 : Column 426WH—continued

This morning, I saw a BBC report about the eradication of the crop that referred to losing the poppy war. That is how it seems when we consider that Afghan farmers—or whoever it is—are chopping down the poppy crops by hand, yet we know how huge is the
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country and how large is the expanse that is given over to poppy production. The results achievable through chopping poppies down by hand are just a drop in the ocean, and will certainly not lead to eradication of the crop.

Spraying has been suggested as an effective way to control poppy production. That happens in Colombia, and we hear the same sorts of complaints from Afghan politicians as from Colombian politicians, who said that they were against spraying of crops because of the potential health hazard to farmers. It is difficult to control where the spray goes and legitimate crops might be contaminated.

The hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn) intimated that corruption is massive in Afghanistan. Members of the Afghan Government speak against crop spraying simply because—for whatever reason—they are a part of the production problem. They are themselves corrupt and they are taking backhanders. Having said that, it is difficult to put oneself in the position of those who are up against the Taliban. The Taliban are terrorists who intend to kill people; they are there to make people’s life impossible. None of us has to put up with the sorts of fear that farmers and other people in Afghanistan have to put up with. When the Taliban say “Jump!”, the response is “How high?”

There is another analogy with Colombia. We must never forget that Karzai’s Government does not have control of the entire country. I was part of a group that was taken to Medellin in Colombia, which is a city that the Government lost control of for a long time before regaining it. The fact that a country has one name does not mean that its Government have control everywhere, like the Government of the United Kingdom. Here, we introduce legislation and it is enforced fairly well throughout the country. That is not the case in other parts of the world, so a balance must be struck.

The suggestion made by my hon. Friend is a useful one. It was discussed at the Council of Europe, where it was also suggested that we buy up the entire poppy production of Afghanistan—a suggestion that you supported, Mr. Hancock, as did other Council of Europe members. The idea was that it would cost less to do that than to wage a war that we are losing. We know that the demand side is huge; some 11 million people are estimated to be addicted to heroin, of whom 3.3 million are in Europe, and I suspect that those figures are somewhat conservative. We must make a concerted effort to try to introduce policies that will be effective in Afghanistan.

I pay tribute to our troops in that country; they are doing a fantastic job. However, we should reconsider our policies on drug eradication, and my hon. Friend’s suggestions go a long way to making concrete proposals that I believe will be effective.

10.17 am

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): I start with a simple proposition, which is that the attempt to eliminate poppy cultivation in areas where security control has not been established will not succeed and is likely to fuel the insurgency. That has always been my view, and nothing that I have heard this morning has changed it.

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There is a problem in our dealings with our American allies on the issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on securing the debate and on proposing imaginative ideas that will certainly bear fruit if applied in areas where a significant degree of security control has been established. He referred to General Jones, the former supreme allied commander at NATO, whom I had the privilege of meeting at the Royal College of Defence Studies last year. I do not know whether his views have since changed, but I was dismayed by his emphasis on poppy eradication even at the expense of winning hearts and minds. I felt that that was absolutely the reverse of the right emphasis for our activities.

It is a technique of unrepresentative, militant minorities down the ages—when they cannot succeed in convincing the mass of the population or even a significant sector of it of the rightness of their cause—to look around for some other area of activity that they can use to seduce people to their side. As a number of speakers have said, that is why the Taliban, having sought to suppress the poppy crop when they were in control of Afghanistan, reversed their position as soon as they lost control of the country. They did so, not as suggested by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Paul Flynn), with some of whose analysis I agree, because they wanted money to buy equipment, but because they wanted to create a common interest between themselves as insurgents and a vast swathe of the population that is economically dependent on the poppy crop.

I have made a distinction between eradication in areas where there is a degree of security control and eradication in areas where this no such control. In areas where there is no security control, we are in danger of allowing ourselves to be diverted from the primary strategic military goal of containing and eventually eliminating the insurgency. We did not go into Afghanistan to fight the drugs trade, and I would be surprised if many of the people who took the decision to go into Afghanistan knew—or, if they did know, even gave a moment’s thought to the fact—that we would find ourselves cheek by jowl with the people who produce the crops that are behind a great deal of the drugs taken on our streets.

Paul Flynn: Has the hon. Gentleman entirely forgotten the rhetoric before the war? Dealing with the fact that Afghanistan was a centre of heroin production was not the main aim of the war, but it was certainly one of the sub-aims.

Dr. Lewis: No, I have not forgotten that, because I never heard it in the first place. I entirely disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I remind him that 48 hours before the attacks on the twin towers and the Pentagon, General Masood was assassinated by people who were clearly part of the conspiracy. Why did they assassinate the man who would undoubtedly have been Afghanistan’s predominant and most effective leader in the event of an invasion? They did so because they knew that what was about to happen in America would inevitably lead to the invasion of Afghanistan because the conspiracy behind it was based there. Narcotics did not come into the question of the invasion at all, and if they did, they should not have done, because the
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invasion was an attempt to respond to, and eliminate the source of, the dreadful terrorist attack that took place. We must not allow ourselves to be diverted from that aim, for precisely the reason that the hon. Gentleman twice mentioned in his speech: even if we succeeded in completely wiping out the poppy crop in Afghanistan, do we think for one moment that the laws of supply and demand would not lead to crops being sown and harvested in countries that were even more inaccessible?

Mr. Evans: Several colleagues have been to Afghanistan and know far more about the issue on the ground than I do, because I have never been there. However, is not part of the problem the fact that the drugs trade is so rife because the Taliban sell what is produced to carry on terrorism? Drugs are an integral part of the war against terrorism.

Dr. Lewis: The Taliban may make money from the drugs trade, but that is not what they need to carry on a successful insurgency. What they need is a number of willing recruits to keep the insurgency going and the support—passive or active—of a significant swathe of the population. The only way to defeat an insurgency, as we have learned over many years in a number of long campaigns, is to isolate the militants from significant parts of the population. If, by taking action to suppress the poppy trade, we create common cause between a significant part of the population and the militants of the insurgency—as we are—we will be sowing the dragon’s teeth and making our eventual success problematic. We must focus on the primary aim, which, if we are talking about winning hearts and minds, must be to avoid at all costs doing anything that forces people who would not normally be inclined to side with the insurgents to do so.

In areas where we have established a reasonable degree of control, a scheme such as that suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East would be of great benefit because it would act as a beacon and an incentive and might even send signals to farmers in areas where we had not established security control that there was a better future to which they could subscribe. However, let us make no bones about the fact that, as I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend, even if a farmer wanted to sign up to such a scheme in an area where the Taliban were still running rife, the first thing that the terrorists would do would be to kill him to intimidate the rest.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: One point that has not been brought out in the debate at all is the fact that the problem of addiction is getting significantly worse in Afghanistan itself and even worse in Iran. Iran is co-operating with us on drugs eradication. Does my hon. Friend not believe that it is vital that we get a regional buy-in from both Iran and Pakistan if we are to succeed in Afghanistan?

Dr. Lewis: I certainly believe that just as the Taliban seek to create a common interest with that part of the population that is dependent on the opium trade for its living, it would be immensely politically beneficial to see whether a common interest of the sort that my hon.
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Friend describes could be used to strengthen relationships with neighbouring countries. I therefore entirely support what he says.

I revert, however, to my central point: if an insurgency is to be defeated, it is vital that we do nothing to increase the insurgents’ appeal to large numbers of the population. We are engaged in a counter-insurgency operation, not a social engineering operation, and we must not confuse the two.

10.27 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) on triggering this excellent debate. All speakers on both sides have expressed an interesting variety of views, and although hon. Members have not always been in total agreement, their contributions show that everybody cares passionately about this subject.

If we were ever in any doubt as to the seriousness of the situation that we are discussing, the resignation of the Afghan counter-drugs Minister and the record opium haul announced last month bring the situation into sharp focus. The impact of the crop spreads from the mountains of Afghanistan to the estates of Edinburgh in my constituency, and anyone who has seen the film “Trainspotting” will know exactly what I am talking about.

The 49 per cent. increase in opium production in Afghanistan has set a new record in world production. The country now accounts for 92 per cent. of global illicit opium production, while more than 12 per cent. of its population is involved in poppy cultivation. The opium trade is worth about $3 billion, although only a fraction of that goes into the pockets of farmers. It is estimated that the opium trade makes up about a third of Afghanistan’s total economy.

In a country as poor as Afghanistan, opium has a corrosive and corrupting influence on any institution that it touches. Other hon. Members will have read reports that some of the biggest drug barons are reputedly members of the national and provincial governments and even include figures close to President Karzai.

The scale of the problem is huge, and the question is how we approach it and what solutions we can offer. As other hon. Members have said, everyone accepts the scale of the problem, but there is major disagreement about the best way to tackle it. Eradication is one possibility, but a growing school of thought suggests that, as the situation deteriorates, the only course will be the aggressive eradication of poppy fields across the country.

The United States has been a key proponent of a more aggressive eradication campaign involving aerial spraying. If the only aim were to destroy the plants, perhaps that would be the best way to proceed. However, when between a third and a half of the Afghan economy depends on the opium trade, with 12 per cent. of the population involved and with unemployment already at more than 40 per cent., to adopt such a heavy-handed tactic would, in my view, be a social and economic disaster and would have massive knock-on implications for the security situation.

The sight of UK or US soldiers or even Afghan Government workers forcibly destroying crops and therefore livelihoods would provide an immediate
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boost to the Taliban recruitment propaganda. UK commanders routinely warn that an aggressive, eradication-based approach would drastically worsen the security situation. In Helmand, British military commanders have consistently warned that attempts to eradicate the poppy crop without providing alternative incomes will simply increase hostility to foreign troops and boost Taliban support. I support British officials on the ground who say that their priority is to attack the drug traffickers and their laboratories before embarking on a programme to provide Afghans with alternative crops.

The option mentioned by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East is very interesting. It is one argument put forward by the Senlis Council.

Mr. Ellwood: It is not the same one.

John Barrett: It is a similar argument—that there is a demand out there.

Mr. Ellwood: I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, but I stress that my argument and the Senlis Council’s argument are not the same at all. There is an overlap, in the idea of taking advantage of poppy crops that could be turned either into opium or into medicinal substances. The council wants widespread licensing—almost legalisation—of poppy growth. I believe that that is not the long-term solution for Afghanistan. The country is too unstable. In addition, the Americans would not buy into that at all, and if the Americans will not support a scheme it will not happen, because they are putting in the most money.

John Barrett: I take the point, and stand corrected. I believe that there is a degree of overlap, but I accept that it is a separate argument.

Paul Flynn: Does the hon. Gentleman think it sensible to listen to the advice of an American Government whose own regressive drug policy resulted in 2 million people in jail—mostly blacks and mostly for using drugs?

John Barrett: The issue of the demand in Europe and the United States is a key part of the problem, and I shall come to that.

Mr. Evans: The hon. Gentleman is generous with his time. Another aspect of the matter is of course providing alternative crops to the farmers, which means that the crops must be bought globally. I have always believed in trade rather than aid and that we should make certain that the new crops would have free access to the European Union and other markets throughout the world.

John Barrett: That point is very well made. I feel that I am eating into the time that I have for my speech, so I shall not respond in detail, but the points that hon. Gentlemen have raised are all well made. The issue is complicated, and hon. Members have helped this morning to open up questions that I hope the Minister will answer.

Another crucial issue to consider before attending to any proposals to move forward with the poppy trade in
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Afghanistan is the relative incomes of licit and illicit opium producers. The average annual income per poppy farmer in Afghanistan was estimated by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime at approximately $3,900 in 2003. In 2004, owing to the fall in opium prices at the farm gate level, farmers earned about $1,700. The average field size per farmer in Afghanistan has been estimated at about 0.4 hectares. By comparison, data collected in Turkey in 2003 suggested that the average net income per farmer involved in opium poppy cultivation was just $50 to $100 per year, with an average field size range between 0.8 and 1.6 hectares. That does not inspire faith that a controlled legal market for opium would be appealing for Afghan farmers, who could still make far more money trading in the illicit market. That market will still exist throughout the world, as many hon. Members have said.

It would also be extremely difficult to enforce any changes that that approach would require, such as the identification of specific farming areas where control measures could prove sufficient for prevention of diversion, and which would be licensed by the Government for that purpose. I do not think that anyone would suggest that there is the infrastructure in Afghanistan to enforce that. I am concerned that in a country where legal institutions are sometimes not even capable of keeping accused drug suspects in jail, changes would serve only to blur the lines between legal and illegal opium and would provide new opportunities for corruption. As has been said this morning, corruption is not exclusively the domain of the developing world. We need only consider what has recently happened in this country with kickbacks and bribes to know that it is a global problem.

Different approaches undoubtedly have their merits, but I suggest that the spiralling drugs trade in Afghanistan is a symptom of the wider problem of the lack of security, strong institutions and the rule of law. As such, I believe it cannot be looked at in isolation from wider political and security concerns and regional differences. I believe that any attempt to combat the drugs trade that ignores those bigger fundamental problems will be doomed to failure. UK support for strong governance in the country, together with sustained aid and redevelopment and the provision of alternative lifestyles, is vital.

The best hope of getting to grips with the opium trade is to win the battle for security in Afghanistan and assert the authority of the elected Government. Currently, the whole chain of government that is supposed to impose the rule of law, from the Ministry of the Interior to ordinary policemen, has been subverted. No matter what policy is decided in Kabul or in NATO, there will be no real change until the authority of the Government is increased. In that respect, the international community has a great deal to learn about the importance of involving the existing central authorities of the communities, the communal or tribal shuras or jirgas. It is there that, often, great authority is held. I believe that they will play a key role in any successful attempts to dissuade farmers on the ground from poppy harvesting.

To get to grips with the problem we need fully to understand why farmers grow opium. The annual opium poppy survey carried out by the United Nations
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Office on Drugs and Crime illustrates the point. When it asked farmers why they cultivated opium, in most cases the reasons were to do with the high price of the commodity. When farmers were asked why they did not cultivate opium, the key reasons given in almost 50 per cent. of cases were religion, the views of the elders and other traditional decision-making powers. The rule of law featured only as a secondary reason, if at all. Not only does that brutally illustrate the lack of any kind of government authority in many regions, but it surely tells us that, realistically, any moves to offer farmers alternatives to opium must involve local traditional decision-makers in a central role.

Before we can hope to control the drugs trade in Afghanistan, we need a far better and more complete appreciation of the reasons why poppies are grown in some areas of Afghanistan and not in others. What is also is needed is a greater active commitment to, and steady progress on, the elements of the Afghan Government’s national drug control strategy. Targeted eradication in places where farmers actually have a choice would be part of the programme, as would apprehending the big players rather than the petty traders. In the end, halting Afghan opium production also means reducing demand in Europe and other drug-consuming states. We in the developed world have to shoulder much of the responsibility for creating the demand for opium and heroin. Of the 11 million heroin addicts in the world, 3.3 million are in Europe. We have to accept that western society is fuelling the demand for opium.

Ultimately, any progress in Afghanistan is likely to be incremental and will involve a mix of targeted eradication and development, the stimulation of agriculture and the licensing of poppy growth. All those measures require the same elusive ingredient: a stable Government who control their own territory and borders. That is the key to controlling the drugs problem in Afghanistan. The drugs trade is a symptom of instability and unrest. Until that is tackled, any attempts to combat the opium trade will have little hope of success.

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