Poppy war can only be won by the Taliban

This year, 5,500 tons of opium will be produced in Afghanistan, 90 per cent of global supply

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In 1739, in response to public enthusiasm for another war with Spain, Horace Walpole was heard to mutter: "They may ring the bells now: they will be wringing their hands before long." In Afghanistan, where this year's poppy harvest is breaking all records, the hands must be positively calloused.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said last week that 5,500 tons of opium will be produced in 2013, accounting for 4 per cent of GDP, and 90 per cent of global supply. "The illicit economy is establishing itself, and seems to be taking over in importance from the licit economy," observed Jean-Luc Lemahieu, UNODC's head in Kabul.

Never mind this admission that, after 10 years in Afghanistan, the counter-narcotics strategy of UNODC and its Western partners has been an utter failure. It is the scale of the harvest increase, up a 50 per cent compared to 2012, that matters most, for it tells us how little faith rural Afghanistan has in the West's vision of a prosperous future for the country, once Nato leaves at the end of 2014.

Many Afghan farmers would prefer to grow pomegranates. They know poppy is haram – forbidden under Islam – and they can see for themselves the damage done by substance abuse, because modern Afghanistan teems with a million drug addicts; the days when heroin was considered a Western vice are long gone. Nevertheless, no crop is as reliably marketable as poppy. "Allah sees into our hearts," as a poppy farmer near Kandahar once told me. "He knows that we are not evil, and that we do this only so that our families may eat."

This poppy boom is an embarrassment for the architects of Britain's Afghan strategy. Tackling the drug trade was one of the reasons the British were deployed to Helmand, which produces half the country's opium. In 2006, Britain was the G8 "lead nation" on Afghan counter-narcotics policy. And yet it was never explained to the military how to eradicate poppies while winning over a population economically dependent on them.

The strategy developed by Nato was no strategy at all. For a long time, the Americans favoured forced eradication, by mass aerial spraying if necessary. British policy was to offer compensation to farmers if they switched crops or even just stopped growing poppy. So in some districts, farmers could have their crops destroyed without warning, while their neighbours were rewarded for growing them.

The confusion in Helmand was total. The "rule of law" the foreigners keep insisting upon in the new Afghanistan became a bad joke. Inconsistency in the rules made the poppy business even more prone to local corruption.

It is of no comfort that the British military saw that the counter-narcotics plan for Helmand was flawed from the outset. General Sir David Richards, then the commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, said in 2007: "What Whitehall doesn't realise is that you can be as joined-up at home as you like, but if you're not joined-up in theatre you count for nothing."

So what should the West do now to regain control of the poppy menace? The candidates' list for the 2014 presidential elections, supposedly the showpiece of the Nato's handover, does not bode well for a drug-busting future. Among the hopefuls is Gul Agha Sherzai, a former governor of Kandahar nicknamed Jabba the Hutt, who by his own admission once received a million dollars a week in kickbacks from the opium trade.

The answer, however unpalatable, may be to embrace the return of the Taliban. No one knows for sure what will happen after 2014, but if there is to be a power-sharing arrangement, it might be sensible if the counter-narcotics portfolio was granted to them. For the Taliban had a drugs policy that worked. The poppy harvest in each of the past 10 years has been higher than in any of the five years when the Taliban were in power. "We were succeeding in abolishing poppy-farming," a Taliban mullah told me. "We couldn't stop it all at once – the process is slow, like weaning a child off breast milk – but we were getting there when the Americans came."

British army officers often accuse the Taliban of hypocrisy. They say that instead of discouraging the production of opium in Helmand, the militants tax its export. But the Taliban's behaviour in Helmand has never been representative of their policy for the country as a whole. The Taliban cannot afford to alienate the local population there any more than Nato can. They have also been fighting a Holy War, which like any campaign must be armed and financed. The moral obligations of jihad put the drug-controlling policies of peacetime on hold.

The jihad, though, will end with the departure of Nato next year. In theory, "normal" Taliban service will then resume. You can wring your hands all you like: if the West is serious about preventing Afghanistan from becoming a narco-state, the Taliban could be the best team for the job.

James Fergusson is the author of 'A Million Bullets: The Real Story of the British Army in Afghanistan' and 'The World's Most Dangerous Place', about Somalia

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