Oh, Afghanistan.  I’ve played a lot of Risk in my time, and one of the earliest lessons I learnt was  to steer clear of Central Asia. But, given I have as much control over Western foreign policy as I had over my roll of the dice, all I can do is watch and despair. There’s an excellent piece in this month’s National Geographic about the intractable problems facing UN attempts to eradicate poppy production in Afghanistan. In a nutshell:

The grim axiom defining today’s Afghanistan, 85 percent of whose citizens are farmers, is that its economy relies on two dueling revenue streams. One flows from Western aid, in the hopes that the country will renounce the Taliban. The other flows from opium trafficking supported by the Taliban, which use the proceeds to fund attacks on Western troops

Working against the UN efforts, are economics and practicalities. Opium is a highly lucrative- a recent blight and poor harvest has the UN predicting the price for the crop will double in 2011. It is also a very reliable cash crop requiring “little fertilization and rainfall, a short growing season, and about as much expertise as it takes to hand-scatter seeds and cut slits in a bulb”.

Disturbingly, the article describes several crop eradication efforts- where officials find poppy fields and trash the crop. Although alternative development efforts are also seriously flawed, eradication is doomed. Poppy farmers are generally loaned sufficient money to plant their crop and living expenses to cover them until the harvest. After the harvest they pay back their debts, and keep the profits. If the crop is eradicated, farmers can’t pay their debts and they don’t have an income. The question of how to resolve the poppy problem has been a big source of tension between US and UK efforts, with the UK traditionally favoring alternative development and the US favoring eradication.

One other point of interest, of the $4bn estimated value of the opium market in Afghanistan, only $0.5bn goes to the Taliban. The rest is just straight forward drug smuggling.

via The Daily Dish