Afghanistan - Besides worries that canada will be saddled with the Bush admin's bad human rights rap in Afghanistan, there are now concerns that our forces could end up smack in the middle of a Colombian-style drug war.
Observers fear that the U.S., which has been somewhat restrained until this point for strategic reasons, is stepping up pressure for eradication of the purple and pink poppy fields. And they predict that Canada's approximately 1,000 troops in Kandahar will suddenly find themselves mired in a full-scale shootout, not just with al Qaeda forces but with opium gangs.
"You are setting yourselves up to be targets,' warns Cindy Fazey, a British criminologist at the University of Liverpool and former chief of demand reduction with the United Nations Drug Control Programme.
It will not matter, she says, that Canadians are engaged in a softer development approach, financially enticing Afghani farmers in Kandahar to grow a less lethal crop like wheat.
"A lot of of the farmers are now dependent on a very lucrative crop. If you take that away, what's going to happen? You are going to have resentment against the invaders. [Some of those farmers] have Kalashnikovs,' she says.
Certainly, unlike the U.S., which officially focuses on the criminal prosecution of users and sellers, Canada has sought to balance its adherence to international bans on drugs like heroin with recognition that addiction is primarily a public health issue.
A spokesperson for the Canadian International Development Agency says that's exactly why the feds support the anti-narcotics plan of Hamid Karzai's government. It promotes alternative livelihoods for farmers, legal action against producers, processors and traffickers, the establishment of a criminal justice system and treatment of addicts.
Putting this plan in place is viewed as a prerequisite to the establishment of stability and democratization in Afghanistan. "This approach takes into account the complexity of the drug issue and aims at limiting the social and economic disruptions caused by eradication and interdiction [legal action],' says CIDA spokesperson Eleonora Karabatic.
But according to Fabrice Pothier, the head of policy analysis for the Paris-based Senlis Council, an international drug policy forum critical of the current global war on drugs, crop eradication is still the primary strategy. This "gets more than half' of the resources invested in the counter-narcotics plan in Afghanistan, says Pothier.
Before this fall's parliamentary elections in Afghanistan, Washington was downplaying eradication in response to the violent resistance faced by Afghan opium crop eradication teams in the countryside, says Pothier. He expects a return to "a stricter approach" to the opium problem when planting season begins again at the end of the year.
"If you look at the counter-narcotics implementation plan recently set up by the Afghanistan government with the help of the UK, eradication and interdiction are clearly priorities," he says. Pothier also points to a March 2005 agreement between Washington and Kabul stipulating that the U.S. will help train the Afghan eradication forces and provide emergency support to these operations.
Until now, experts say the counter-narcotics strategy hasn't been emphasized. The fact that most heroin from Afghanistan goes to Europe and not to the U.S., whose biggest problem is Colombia, means the U.S. has traditionally been content to put its alliances first.
According to John Sifton, a researcher for Human Rights Watch who has just returned from Afghanistan, "You are basically looking at a situation where many de facto rulers, people who may not have official government posts but in reality exercise a huge amount of control at the local level, are involved in drug trafficking.'
But Fazey sees a hardening of the U.S. position. The more muscular approach comes in part because the Americans "are very irritated" with the failure of the British counter-narcotics strategy and "want something done."
British forces sought to discourage opium cultivation by paying Afghan opium growers $800 U.S. per hectare of land if they grew wheat instead. But this has not worked, Fazey reports, because these same farmers can earn revenues of $12,000 U.S. per hectare for opium cultivation.
In contrast, rather than try to beat the price Afghan farmers earn for opium, the Canadian International Development Agency, as part of a four-year initiative in Kandahar, will provide a range of services (e.g., irrigation, roads or credit) to local farmers in specific areas to make the switch from opium more attractive, says Vincent Raiche, a CIDA analyst for Afghanistan.
"When you look at alternative livelihoods, you have to look at the whole spectrum of economic development and economic activities in the region."
But all these plans by individual governments in Afghanistan could be undone by U.S. impatience, says Fazey.
If the Afghan government eradicates, Canada is in with the U.S. and British who are leading the anti-opium campaign.
Says a Department of National Defence spokesperson Captain Stephanie Gaudet, the trafficking of opium threatens all reconstruction efforts. Still, she says,"We are not the lead in that kind of assistance. We do not provide [anti-narcotics] training to our members deploying to Afghanistan, as this isn't part of our mandate. It's more of a UN mandate.' Nevertheless she says, "Canada is committed to support the Afghan government in its efforts to fight this threat.'
Although the Karzai government absolutely opposes the use of chemical air spraying of the vast opium fields, and spraying is not officially part of the counter-narcotics implementation plan, Fazey is not sure the Americans are hands-off.
She maintains that she has heard from what she calls "informed gossip" in Afghanistan that the U.S. forces were experimenting with aerial spraying last year. "I wouldn't discount [defoliation of opium crops]; they would go in unilaterally and start spraying."
One problem, she points out, is that Afghan insurgents have access to missiles that can shoot down low-flying aircraft.
Recently, the Senlis Council, working with academic and medical researchers around the world, has been pushing the alternative of the legal licensing of opium production in Afghanistan for the production of codeine and morphine, as is already done in India, Turkey and Australia.
Participating Canadian researchers have found that only 24 per cent of the demand for painkillers in the developing world is currently being met. So far, no national government or the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which supports the current counter-narcotics strategy in Afghanistan, has expressed support for this proposal.
Nevertheless, the person considered the leading expert on Afghanistan, New York University political scientist Barnett Rubin, says the Senlis proposal merits a closer look. "I can't endorse it at this point. I don't know enough about all the details, but I think dismissing it out of hand is very mistaken."
However, Human Right Watch's Sifton, who has just returned from Afghanistan, says it's premature and academic to talk about a licensing regime for opium in a country like this. "What Afghanistan needs is not an anti-drug strategy. What it needs is a developmental strategy to restore law and order, reform the police, the courts and judicial system. Only that will stop illegal activities,' he says.