DEFENCE (FRONT BENCH) – POPPY ERADICATION – 1 February 2007

[Robert Walter: The Secretary of State has outlined the achievements and we commend them, but the poppy crop has not decreased; in fact, it has increased. The United States announced last week that it is committing another $10 billion to military and development support in Afghanistan. The Secretary of State for International Development has estimated the poppy crop to be worth some $600 million. Could we perhaps be a bit cleverer and seek to withdraw the poppies from the market by spending on this issue just a small proportion of what we are prepared to commit militarily?

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne):  ... I have read about recommendations of this nature from a number of sources, including from people who have extensive experience in dealing with these issues. If I thought that that [buying the poppy crop] was a solution to the problem and was persuaded by the argument, I would readily agree. It seems such a simple thing to do, but the flaw in that proposal is that we could never be assured, in a country that lacks basic administration, that we were not simply encouraging the doubling of the crop. Until we can get an administration in place that can assure us that we are not, by putting more money into poppies, simply saying to the farmers, “You can grow some for us, but you can continue to grow them for the dealers, as well, and make twice as much money”, I would not be prepared to spend money in that way.

We have to recognise that dealing with narcotics in such an environment requires us to put in place the basic parts of the rest of our drugs plan. We need to improve the ability to administer these regions. We need a justice system – an issue that I was talking about earlier, but in a different context – that works. We need police forces, particularly anti-narcotics forces, who can arrest people – the key middle-ground people – in the confidence that those people will go into the justice system and stay in it. Once a basic administration is established and the pressure on, and intimidation of, the peasant farmer is relieved, it will then be possible to adopt some of the more sophisticated approaches. However, until then, we need to concentrate on building up the basic parts of the infrastructure that are needed. Having said that, this is a very serious problem. The crop that is currently planted in Helmand and in the south of the country was planted and in the ground before we got there.]

Dr Julian Lewis: One does not have to disagree with the Secretary of State's response – that it is not only a simple solution that is required – in order to state nevertheless that there is no excuse for pursuing the strategy, to which the US State Department seems wedded, of actively destroying, suppressing and even spraying the crops from the air, at a time when the basic principle of counter-insurgency means that we should be doing everything that we can to divide the insurgents from as much of the population as possible, not creating a natural alliance between the insurgents and the one eighth of the population who depend on the crop.

[Des Browne: I know that many hon. Members – and the hon. Gentleman is one of them – know and understand the component elements of this issue well, and they know the detrimental effect that precipitate anti-narcotics action could have on a broader anti-insurgency strategy. We should not underestimate the intelligence of the US, which also knows and understands those points. There is no expectation that aerial spraying of the crop will take place. Indeed, all the analysis of the risk associated with various methods has been done, and in the end the people who will make the decisions on how to proceed are the Government of Afghanistan.

I know of no plans for aerial eradication. Indeed, I know of no plans for ground spraying in Helmand province either. However, that does not alter the fact that with the support of the governor, using the structures that we have in place and recognising that we need to find an alternative livelihood for the people whose crops we destroy, we need to begin to address the issue of narcotics. We need to send the message that a narcotics-based economy is not the future for Afghanistan. It is a delicate balance, but we take into account all the issues that the hon. Gentleman mentions.]

[NOTE: For the Taliban's tactics, click here.]