About seven years ago, I interviewed Bill Rammell, a Labour foreign office minister who that time was in charge of Tony Blair’s policy to stop drug production in Afghanistan.
As a portfolio, it struck me as something of a tough one, roughly equivalent to being tasked with being Minister in Charge of Wave Prevention to the Court of King Canute. Yet it was a poisoned chalice that he seemed to quaff from without gagging. Not only was eradicating the world’s biggest source of opium was an achievable goal, he argued, it could be done within ten years.
It is, of course, a journalist’s job to sound a note of scepticism about ministerial ambitions. So I duly did.
Specifically, I told him how I’d been reading Mark Bowden’s excellent book Killing Pablo, about the US operation against Pablo Escobar, the Latino cocaine baron who turned Colombia into a narco-state during the 1980s. During that time his Medellin drug cartel was almost as powerful as the state itself, waging war on the police, controlling about a quarter of the economy, and killing 107 people in an airline bombing, an unprecedented act of narco-terrorism that finally got the US on his case.
My point to Rammell was this. If the drug trade allowed someone like Escobar, who started out as a petty crook, to challenge a relatively functional nation state like Colombia, then how much harder would it be to crack Afghanistan’s opium trade, given that it was backed by heavily-armed and highly-motivated Taliban warlords, and given that central government was virtually non-existent?
It seemed like a reasonable question. But judging by Rammell’s reaction, it wasn’t. Yes, he said, he’d read Killing Pablo, and was aware of the challenges ahead. But he bristled at the notion that stamping out opium within a decade was impossible. This, he made clear, was the view of a typically cynical, scoffing hack.
Anyway, seven years later, I think the cynical approach has been proved correct. A new report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime shows that opium cultivation has reached a record level, with more than 200,000 hectares planted with the poppy for the first time. The harvest is 36 per cent up on last year, and most of it is in Helmand province, from where British troops are now preparing to withdraw.
By way of reminder, it was partly to stamp out the drug trade that Tony Blair sent extra troops down to Helmand in the first place back in 2006. They’d previously been up mainly in Mazar-e-Sharif, in the relatively tranquil north, and the Army’s own commanders warned right from the start that by tangling with the drug lords and their Taliban beneficiaries, they’d be stirring up a “hornets nest”.
But with the Taliban on the back foot at the time, it seemed like an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: firstly, to cut off the key source of Britain’s heroin addiction problem, and secondly, to deprive the fundamentalists of their main source of income.
Instead, the hornet’s nest predictions proved all too true. Helmand has proved far and away the deadliest area of operation for British troops in Afghanistan, with more than 100 dying around the town of Sangin alone. And more or less since they got there, they have been under strict orders not to eradicate opium crops, because of fears of driving the local farmers further into the Taliban’s arms.
Instead, the aim was to go after “kingpins”. But with so many producers on the ground, and the Taliban insurgency gathering pace, that has been a hard strategy to get results in – as the UNODC report shows. There is no point in blaming any other Nato partner for this either: Britain was the “lead nation” on tackling drugs in Afghanistan.
All of which makes me wonder why it is always the Iraq war that it is considered the failed, broken effort, based on faulty premises and lack of direction. To my mind, the war on drugs in southern Afghanistan appears to have been equally futile. The British government should have paid more heed to the lessons in Killing Pablo: that while it’s one thing to kill a drug lord, it’s quite another to kill the trade itself.