Over 9,000 British and an additional 10,000 American troops have been sent into Afghanistan's Helmand Province to rout the Taliban and establish security ahead of next month's national elections. The fight against the insurgents has been tough as rising casualty figures show and the war against the continued widespread cultivation of poppies and production of opium have proved equally difficult.
Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan - focal point of heavy fighting by British and American forces against insurgents. Helmand is a stronghold of the Taliban, and it is where more than half of the country's opium crop is grown.
Afghanistan produces over 90 percent of the world's opium, which is then smuggled across the border and ultimately sold as heroin.
So far, counter narcotics efforts have focused on eradicating poppy fields.
But Paul Burke, policy director at ICOS - the International Council for Security and Development - says that only robs farmers of their livelihoods and forces them to join the insurgency to support their families.
"You get rid of some 10 hectares of poppy. Another 10 hectares will soon pop up elsewhere and, by the way, in the interim, we've just created another 50-100 ready recruits for the insurgency," Burke said.
The United Nations estimates that insurgents earn up to $400 million a year from opium, which funds their ability to fight.
Christopher Langton served in the British Army for 32 years. He is now an analyst with the International Institute of Strategic Studies and says opium is complicating Britain's mission in Afghanistan.
"Poppy produces finance for the insurgency, as well as for corrupt government officials, of course, and others in Afghanistan," Langton says. "And, ultimately it produces heroin on the streets of Britain. So it's always in peoples' minds. The question is what do you do about it?"
Opium can easily be trafficked across Afghanistan's porous border. This truck has just entered Iran.
The U.S and its allies have been encouraging Afghan farmers to grow alternative crops such as wheat, pomegranates or nuts - but its failed to stop the widespread cultivation of poppy.
America's new policy will focus on stopping the opium from leaving Afghanistan - aiming to not punish the average farmer, but rather to cut off the supply routes and hopefully, ultimately make the opium worthless.
But Paul Burke wants America and Britain to support his group's "Poppy for Medicine" campaign. It would convert a portion of Afghanistan's opium into morphine for medicinal use around the world. "We have a vast abundance of this crop in Afghanistan. Let's try and start to use that for the benefit of cancer sufferers around the world," he said.
The "Poppy for Medicine" campaign would ensure that farmers who grow poppy crops can still support their families.
Christopher Langton says while the theory is good - the timing is wrong to set up a morphine production plant in Afghanistan. "I think in the future when there is stability and governance has grown, then there is going to be a much greater opportunity for this. As I say, it's a very worthy idea, and it shouldn't be discounted," he said.
As the fighting ratchets up ahead of next month's elections in Afghanistan, the war and rising casualty figures have sparked debate in London. And as for the war against opium, opposition lawmaker, Adam Holloway of the Conservative Party, says it is part of the larger fight for the hearts and minds of local Afghans.
"If we're going to win over the people, we have to give them some sort of alternative," he says, "It's crazy to think that - if you grow poppy, we'll destroy your fields. That's just mad, that not a way to win hearts and minds."
Holloway thinks the strategy in Afghanistan needs to shift from the battlefield to helping average Afghans. He thinks that will go a long way to beat back the insurgency and cut down the production of opium.
... Payvand News - 08/01/09 ... --