Afghan opium could do some good
The dreadful weekend events in Basra tragically demonstrated what a dangerous job British soldiers are required to perform in Iraq and how difficult it is for a foreign force, however well-intentioned, to win over the indigenous population.
Wherever Britain's soldiers are sent, they almost invariably do an excellent job and prove a credit to their nation.
But the heart sank to see last week's deployment of some 3,500 men to the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan because, however well they perform, the venture has fiasco written all over it.
The area where they are going is the world's biggest producer of opium and part of their task is to help the Afghan authorities curb its output.
Local farmers are now nearing the end of the opium harvest and by the time the troops are fully ensconced, the crop will be in and thoughts of destroying it in the ground can be put off for a while. The raw opium will be turned into heroin and sent to the West.
It is by no means clear how far the Government expects the troops to get stuck into fighting local drug production but it does seem to be one of its principal targets, albeit in a support role to Afghan troops and police.
The function of the Armed Forces is to act in Britain's national interests and, since 90 per cent of the heroin on our streets originates in Afghanistan, smashing the opium trade could justify the deployment without the additional task of confronting Taliban insurgents, supporting the administration in Kabul and preventing al-Qa'eda from setting up its terrorist training camps again.
Afghan opium poppy production is back to the levels that existed before the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001.
According to UN drugs watchdogs, Afghan farmers grew more than 4,100 tons in 2005 and millions of addicts worldwide are hooked on the heroin they produced.
There was some progress last year because one in five opium fields cultivated in 2004 was not replanted; but that trend was reversed this year and better weather could turn this year's harvest into the best ever.
Afghanistan remains far and away the world's largest supplier of opium, which the UN estimates is responsible for 100,000 annual deaths around the world. The cost of the crime associated with the trade is incalculable, but must run into billions of pounds.
So, it would seem to make political sense to take on the growers, destroy their crops and keep an iron grip on an industry that causes so much harm.
However, it would also be military folly, because 1.7 million Afghan farmers are economically dependent on opium production, the trade is run by warlords backed by armed gangs and 52 per cent of the country's GDP is linked to it.
Our soldiers will hardly win the "hearts and minds" of the local people by depriving them of their livelihood.
The Commons defence committee recently reported that the Taliban has been encouraging farmers to grow poppies this year.
It warned: "There is a fundamental tension between the UK's objective of promoting stability and security and its aim of implementing an effective counter-narcotics strategy. It is likely the more successful the deployment is at impeding the drugs trade, the more it will come under attack from those involved in it. In the short term at least, the security situation is likely to deteriorate."
For more than two years now, an international think tank, the Senlis Council, has argued that there is an alternative. It wants the West to license Afghanistan's opium crop for use in palliative medicines, rather than trying to destroy it. There is a world shortage of pain-killing drugs, chiefly morphine and codeine, so why not put the Afghan production on a legitimate basis?
These drugs have to be grown somewhere (they come mainly from India, where 130,000 farmers raise poppies under strict controls). Ironically, Afghanistan is one of many developing countries that has little or no access to these medications. The World Health Organisation says a handful of Western industrialised countries consume three quarters of available opium-based medicines and even they do not have enough to meet demand.
The Senlis idea has been widely pooh-poohed. In a recent report, the International Narcotics Control Board, a UN agency, said: "The idea that legalising opium poppy cultivation would somehow enable the government to obtain control over the drug trade and exclude the involvement of criminal organisations is simplistic and does not take into account the complex situation in the country."
As the UN 10 years ago set a target of eradicating illegal drugs consumption worldwide by 2008, it is not especially qualified to talk about unrealistic expectations in this field. But its attitude appears to be shared by the British and American governments. Ministers see the plan as "inappropriate".
There are flaws. If opium production were licensed, the whole country could become a drug-producing state. In countries where the crop is grown legally, it makes up a tiny proportion of national agricultural output, whereas in Afghanistan it is a majority.
It could also discourage farmers from growing other crops, as in the "Golden Triangle" countries, where land once under opium poppies now grows such cash crops as asparagus.
On the other hand, the attempted eradication of the coca plant spectacularly failed in Colombia. There is no reason to believe it will work in Afghanistan - and certainly not without great cost, both financial and military.
It could make those parts of the country that Kabul wants to bring within its writ harder to govern.
Hilary Benn, the international development secretary, said recently that "sustainable drug elimination will take many years" and would be best achieved by targeting the trafficker, encouraging different crops and reducing the demand for drugs.
But Senlis has, at the very least, suggested another route that must be worth exploring if we are to avoid transferring the tragedies of Iraq to Afghanistan.
By Philip Johnston