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Turkey did it. Can Afghanistan ? 27 février 2007

Posted by Acturca in Central Asia / Asie Centrale, Economy / Economie, History / Histoire, Turkey / Turquie, USA / Etats-Unis.
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The Toronto Star (Canada), February 25, 2007

Lynda Hurst

Experts debate whether the Afghan poppy problem could be solved by following Ankara’s strategy of diverting heroin production into legal medical products, writes Lynda Hurst

Back in the 1960s, Marseilles was the conduit, but Turkey was the originating source of almost all the illegal heroin flowing into the West.

Today, it’s Afghanistan. Ongoing attempts by the United States to obliterate the poppy fields of that embattled land have been a fiasco. Afghan fields now supply the opium for 92 per cent of the global heroin trade.

And Turkey? It’s still growing opium poppies and selling the product – but not to the black market. It earns $60 million (all figures U.S.) a year exporting the raw materials that are turned into medical morphine and codeine.

The country’s shift in 1974 from an out-of-control supplier of criminal narcotics into a licensed system of legal farming is a clear model for what could be done in Afghanistan. Or so a growing number of analysts are controversially arguing.

Chief among them is the Senlis Council, an international policy think-tank with offices in London, Paris, Kabul and, as of this month, Ottawa.

It says that legitimizing the poppy crop is the only feasible solution to Afghanistan’s drug crisis. Licensing not only would cut out the drug-lord insurgents, but also correct the shortfall in painkilling medicines available to the developing world.

Faced last month with an opiates shortage in the United Kingdom, the British Medical Association surprised many by calling for an investigation into the idea: « We should be looking at this and saying how can we convert it (opium) from being an illicit crop to a legal crop that is medicinally useful? »

Even Liberal deputy leader Michael Ignatieff got in on the act. Last week, he told a military audience in Ottawa that he had « stress-tested » the Senlis proposal and thinks Canada should spearhead an international effort to license Afghan poppy fields.

Washington, however, remains implacably opposed, saying complete eradication, no matter how long it takes, is the only acceptable outcome.

But then, the U.S. once said that about Turkey.

It was Richard Nixon, of all people, who set the wheels in motion. By the mid-1960s, the U.S. had a major drug problem with its troops in Vietnam and a growing one at home as well. In 1968, Nixon was elected president in part because of his vow to wage a « war on drugs, » heroin in particular.

Courtesy of orbiting satellites, the White House knew exactly where poppy fields were located around the world. When it identified Turkey as the source of 80 per cent of the illegal heroin flooding into the U.S., Nixon made eradication of those fields a top priority.

In 1969, Washington approached the Turkish government, demanding it cease growing the opium poppy then and in the future and offering an array of incentives, from buying up that year’s entire harvest and compensating farmers to various foreign aid programs.

No dice.

In Turkey, opium poppies were a historically entrenched crop. On the plains of Anatolia, where towns have names like Afyon (which translates to « opium »), they were a source of seed, fodder, fuel – and of cash from drug traffickers.

Poppy farmers’ interests were crucial for stability in a country with an 80 per cent rural population and more than 70,000 poppy-farming families. Turkey judged that the total eradication demanded by the Americans was both technically and socially undoable.

Turkish prime minister Suleyman Demirel told the U.S. embassy in Ankara it was « impossible to go to farmers and ask them to plow under their crops. We cannot control it. The poppies will just appear illegally. »

The two governments were deadlocked. Washington upped the ante, threatening to halt an existing $60 million in foreign aid, even to impose economic and military sanctions. Again, it offered financial compensation for farmers in return for the crops’ destruction.

Again Demirel refused, saying eradication would « bring down the government. » Instead, he started to explore a poppy-licensing system for producing opium-based medicines.

In 1971, a military government took office in Ankara and the U.S. stepped up demands for poppy-growing to be criminalized. The new prime minister, Nihat Erim, echoing his predecessor’s words, said the political fallout « might bring about the fall of my government. »

That summer, Erim gave in to the pressure, agreeing to ban all poppy cultivation as of June 1972. Washington’s reward was $35 million over three years. It also promised to use its clout at the World Bank and other international organizations to make loans and a variety of assistance available to Turkey.

The ban was hugely unpopular, however, and short-lived.

In 1974, when the Nixon administration was focused on the Watergate scandal, yet another new Turkish prime minister overturned the ban. He announced that, subject to United Nations’ approval, licensed growing for medical uses would henceforth be permitted, whether the U.S. liked it or not.

Washington didn’t but reluctantly agreed.

The UN helped Turkey build a poppy-processing factory and, over the next 15 years, would provide $8 million to set up strict monitoring and diversion controls.

Five years later, it asked countries that manufactured opium-based medicines to buy the raw materials from countries given « traditional producer » status. Among them were Turkey, India and Afghanistan.

In 1981, the U.S. decided to give it « special protected market status, » agreeing to buy at least 80 per cent of its needs from Turkey (and later India), and to help support the Turkish industry – both of which it continues to do.

Today, 600,000 Turks work in the highly regulated system and diversion into the illegal market is negligible. Unlike India, where diversion is a serious problem, Turkey is considered a success story.

And it happened because « all parties understood that total eradication was impractical, » says the Senlis Council, an international development and counter-narcotics think-tank. « Only pragmatic solutions would resolve Turkey’s opium crisis. »

The council argues that the same is true for Afghanistan, where opium production has hit record levels.

The UN says production rose 49 per cent to 6,000 tonnes last year, enough to make 600 tonnes of heroin. In 2002, there were 74,000 hectares under poppy cultivation; today there are 400,000 hectares. More than 2 million Afghans are economically dependent on the crop.

« Afghanistan has the same history and same problems that Turkey had, » says Almas Zakhilwal, a Senlis spokesperson in Ottawa. « Turkey knew that forced eradication would lead to worse problems, to corruption and instability. »

Critics say the two situations are not the same. Turkey was able to force farmers to sell their crop to legal buyers.

In Afghanistan, the lawless culture in the 11 provinces where opium cultivation is rife means farmers will sell to the highest bidder. And traffickers will always pay more, because they can still make a profit.

In a rebuttal last week to the Senlis proposals, the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics said licensing sounds good on the surface but doesn’t withstand scrutiny.

The 12 countries that currently produce legal opium, the bureau said, all have strict controls and sophisticated law enforcement, neither of which exists in Afghanistan. « Without safeguards, licit and illicit opium would be indistinguishable. Opium really destined for the black market would be produced under the pretense of a legal system. »

Advocates counter that some diversion into the illegal trade is better than 100 per cent diversion.

The U.S. bureau also disputes Senlis’ claims that the world’s legal opiate supply is inadequate. Although leery of oversupply, the International Narcotics Control Board, which regulates the legal trade, admits that seven or eight countries account for 79 per cent of the global consumption of morphine, while developing countries, with 80 per cent of the world’s population, account for only 6 per cent.

« Shortages in the developing world are unfortunate, » the U.S. bureau says, « but the issue is not supply. It is a lack of proper economies and systems of distribution. »

World demand for opium-based drugs, it insists, is being fully met.

« Fully met for them, » Zakhilwal says dryly of the Americans.

Ironically, when the idea of legal cultivation in Afghanistan first surfaced at a 2004 meeting of the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs, it was Turkey and India that vehemently objected. They warned that if they lost their guaranteed market share, the chances of their harvest – or more of it, in India’s case – ending up on the black market would rise.

There is no simple solution to the situation, « no shortcut or silver bullet, » the U. S. narcotics bureau said last week.

On that, at least, all sides agree.


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