Thomas Sutcliffe: The bitter harvest of an illogical policy

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For those of you who like brainteasers, here is a conundrum. Last Tuesday in the Lords, the freshly ennobled Lord Malloch Brown, Minister of State at the FCO with responsibility for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, was coming clean about the failure to eradicate opium production in Afghanistan. He said: "It is a terrible black mark on the international community's performance in Afghanistan ... that so far we have not prevailed in the efforts to defeat the growth of this pernicious crop."

It wasn't all bad news; in areas where the "writ of the Afghan Government runs" the size of the crop was coming down - assisted by crop substitution and development support. Unfortunately, in the much larger areas, where the writ of the Afghan government doesn't run, the crop has increased significantly. And the puzzle I would set you is this: how would you explain to an Afghan farmer who has just seen his livelihood destroyed that in several rural provinces of England - all areas where the writ of the British Government still runs - the cultivation of opium poppies has recently increased markedly, with the explicit approval of the authorities?

It's true that the farmers of Northamptonshire and Lincolnshire who have recently turned fields over to the cultivation of opium poppies aren't selling their crop to drug dealers, or at least not to outlawed ones. They're growing the poppies for the pharmaceutical company Macfarlan Smith, which makes medical opiates and is eager for new sources of raw material because of a worldwide shortage of morphine and similar drugs.

So, if you've solved the first half of the puzzle, here comes the second. How do you explain to the Afghan farmer that he can't have a licence to fill that commodity gap, while his infinitely more prosperous western counterpart can? Is it because his way of life is inherently criminal, as the eradication programme seems to imply, or because other interests are served by the arbitrary destruction of his poppy fields?

There are certainly those who would be dismayed if the failing Afghan eradication programme was abandoned. The corrupt elements of the Karzai government and regional administrations, who make a healthy living out of turning a blind eye, would probably regret a move to legalised trade. DynCorp, the US military contractor which supplies enforcing muscle for eradication sweeps, probably wouldn't either.

Above all, the Taliban would be utterly dismayed. For them, the policy of poppy-field destruction is a heady double hit. They can extort heavy "taxes" on farmers and then reap the propaganda benefits of destructive raids on poppy farms. Indeed, were you to ask a Taliban strategist to come up with a policy best suited to sustain an insurgency, it's doubtful that they could do any better.

As the Senlis Council, a development think-tank, has reported, the US has successfully pursued a legalisation policy before, when it became clear that the Nixon administration's attempts to stamp out Turkish opium farming was politically and socially impossible. Instead, they tried licensing and a preferential trade agreement, which poved highly effective. Perhaps Gordon Brown could suggest that George Bush might emulate the Taliban and Richard Nixon, and put practical results ahead of ideological purity. It's not the plant that's pernicious, it's the policy.

A death in the family

A colleague expresses his bafflement at the widespread coverage of Mike Reid's death, confused that a minor Cockney stand-up and soap actor should generate such fulsome tributes. I ask tactfully whether he follows the soaps and he confesses he doesn't, at which point his sense of exclusion is explained. The millions who watch soaps regularly know their characters more intimately than they do many members of their own family - and they see them more regularly. So while they might absorb the death of a distant uncle with little more than a polite ruefulness, they feel the loss of a performer far more directly. For most people, it's Frank Butcher that's gone - and though the relationship was never real, that doesn't mean the regret isn't.

The BBC reports that a new range of Christian toys are to be marketed in the United States by a devout entrepreneur who wants to take the battle for children's souls out into the aisles of Wal-Mart. I have some anxieties about the trades descriptions implications of the Moses and the Ten Plagues Figurine set, which, for just $7.99, gives you Moses clutching the tablets of stone, a Pharaoh figure and a plastic bush covered with locusts. Nine plagues short, surely, even allowing for the difficulties of producing an injection-moulded Three Days of Darkness.

I'm also a little nervous that children expect more of a modern plaything than mere doctrinal orthodoxy. The Moses Messenger of Faith doll comes with a stop-start function, which is an advance on the original, but the Jesus Walks on Water figurine is surely going to cause disappointment come bathtime - unless the box carries a big disclaimer: "Note: Jesus Does Not Walk On Water". Perhaps they could put it just above "Swallowing Hazard".

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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