German Experts Offer Alternatives in Drug War

While Britain proposes a "slash and burn" policy in the fight against the Afghan opium trade, the Germans want to link education and prevention with development in a different type of war.

photo: AP
Afghanistan's opium trade is flourishing

​​The far-reaching plains of Afghanistan hold a deadly secret through the spring. As nature awakes from the harsh winter and blossoms begin to change the barren land, the opium poppy sleeps on. A few months later, the fields will be full with beautiful red flowers.

Then the harvest begins; the poppies are mowed and in the weeks that follow, the product that these plants hold within will hit the streets of Western cities in the form of powder sold in small plastic bags.

In an attempt to stop the tide of Afghan heroin flooding European cities, politicians and representatives of international organizations have been meeting in Kabul to discuss strategies to counter the country’s drug cultivation industry.

Britain and US favor burning fields

But while the experts are united in their cause to stamp out the scourge of Afghan heroin crossing their borders, there are conflicting views on what the best action is. Britain, which was given the role of stamping out Afghanistan’s drug output at the Bonn Conference shortly after the fall of the Taliban regime, is in favor of burning the poppy fields and destroying the drug labs. Considered harsh by many, the United States supports such a "slash and burn" tactic.

However, German experts wish to pursue alternative solutions. "These repressive measures do not correspond to our plan of lasting development," said Christoph Berg, project manager of the drugs and development scheme of the German Society for Technical Cooperation (GTZ), in an interview with Deutsche Welle. "We want to show the farmers that there are alternatives to opium growing."

Farmers would prefer alternative income

Research carried out by the GTZ shows that the cultivation of wheat, wine, fruit or spices could well replace the production of heroin as a source of making a living for Afghans. "We have spoken with farmers. Many would stop growing opium if they could survive by producing other products," said Berg, adding that all production of opium is illegal in Afghanistan.

photo: AP
Poppy fields in Afghanistan

​​The GTZ experts in Kabul form a part of a project investigating "drug control connected to development," an EU supported initiative which is being funded by the bloc to the tune of €9 million over the next three years. The project intends to start the process of replacing the drug economy at the very roots by working with schools and health centers in the eastern provinces of Laghman, Kunar and Nangarhar and to set up and strengthen alternative agricultural cooperatives.

GTZ must convince profiting warlords

The project will last for at least 10 to 15 years, according to Berg, and it will take at least that long before the first successes becomes visible in the fight against drugs. Not everybody is so eager to cooperate. "We must also try to include the local Warlords and work constructively with them," said Berg. The warlords profit from the drug business and the Afghan economy relies heavily on it while there is little alternative. Convincing some of the benefits of other crops will take time.

But the German focus is on a peaceful and progressive campaign against the drug trade emanating from Afghanistan. The military has also taken a non-aggressive stance on the opium business, especially as the Bundeswehr attempts to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people through its reconstruction efforts.

Germany rules out military intervention

The soldiers of the regional reconstruction team (PRT) in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz are operating in one of the most opium rich areas of the country. However, the German parliament only agreed the deployment of the force outside the relative safety of the International Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Kabul on the condition that the 220 soldiers of the PRT keep out of the fight with the drug barons.

But despite the plans of the GTZ and the resolution of the Bundeswehr, the fight against the poppy growers and cultivators will go on as British and U.S. forces continue to target a way of life that not only provides their enemies with funds to fight on but also takes the war to the streets of their home nations.

Harvests improving every year

According to the United Nations, 2003 saw Afghanistan’s second-best harvest ever registered: 3,600 metric tons of opium, material for 360 metric tons of heroin was produced last year. This number is second only to the bumper crop of 1999 from which 4,600 metric tons were collected.

This year, a good harvest is expected once again, adding to Afghanistan’s reputation as the world market leader in the production of the drug. The drug cultivation and drug trafficking makes up half of the Afghan domestic product, three quarters of the world production in opium comes from the Hindu Kush and drug experts estimate that 90 percent of the raw Afghan opium makes it to Europe in the form of refined heroin.