Afghanistan, one of the poorest countries in the world, now produces 92% of the world’s opium. According to a recent World Bank study, opium cultivation and heroin production now account for 27% of the nation’s economy (or 36% of Afghanistan’s economy if illicit drugs are excluded).

A recent report in The New Yorker describes the problems of attempting to eradicate opium. Apart from the well-known quarter century of conflict in Afghanistan, this impoverished nation also faces the threat of a major HIV epidemic. HIV has already spread extensively among injecting drug users in neighbouring Pakistan and Iran.

So far, HIV spread has been limited in Afghanistan but many millions of Afghanis have fled decades of conflict and destruction and sought refuge elsewhere, especially in Pakistan and Iran. Inevitably some have begun injecting drugs while living as destitute refugees. So Afghanistan’s current HIV situation is described as “low prevalence-high risk”.

The attempted eradication of opium in Afghanistan will drive farmers and their families into the waiting arms of the Taliban. It will also drive up the price of opium and therefore drive up the income of the Taliban, enabling the Taliban to expand their military activities.

The USA has long been a consistent and strong advocate of opium eradication in Afghanistan. The recent departure of Afghanistan’s Minister for Counter Narcotics for an overseas post may increase the chance that the USA will at long last be able soon to implement aerial eradication of opium with herbicides and other chemicals. The USA has already all but completed in Iraq the double whammy of delivering one of the major sources of the world’s petroleum to their arch enemies in Iran while at the same time radicalising Islam for a generation.

Attempted opium eradication in Afghanistan could also achieve the double whammy of increasing the spread of HIV while also enormously strengthening the Taliban. But what opium eradication in Afghanistan will not do is make any long term significant difference to the global trade in opium and heroin. Only repeal of the Law of Supply and Demand will achieve that. It is not just fundamentalism in the Middle East that is the problem.

Peter Fray

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