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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 26th April 2012

Like everyone, I’ve heard quite a lot about Afghanistan starting with the Soviet invasion on 27th December 1979 and increasing since the November 2001 invasion to overthrow the Taliban. In addition, since 2005 when my interest in Papaver somniferum, opium poppy, started, I read a lot of reports from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) detailing poppy cultivation throughout the country.

But, until recently, I’d only read one book about Afghanistan and that a very short one with many photographs and fairly brief text. Now, however, I’ve just finished reading ‘Opium Nation’ by Fariba Nawa and I can thoroughly recommend it to anyone who wants to get beyond the news stories and governments’ perspectives of what is going on in that country and the effect of poppy cultivation and trafficking.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

I’m not a book reviewer so I won’t attempt to do that job but there are many things in Ms Nawa’s book that I want to write about. Before I do that, however, I want to mention that previous read.

That book is entitled ‘The Conflict in Afghanistan’ and was written by John C Griffiths and published in 1987. It was one of a series called ‘Flashpoints’ that aimed to provide a quick primer for anyone trying to understand the background to a range of areas of conflict around the world.

Griffiths begins with the Soviet invasion and then goes back to give a summary of Afghanistan’s troubled history as a football being kicked around by various imperial powers. But it is his final chapter ‘The future’ that shows how difficult it is even for experts to determine what is to come.

Griffiths see no prospect of a Soviet withdrawal because of the loss of face that would result and the likely impact on other satellites of the USSR. Though Gorbachev is in power when the chapter is being written, it is too early to see what the full impact of Glasnost will be. He does, however, see some chance of the Soviets being able to negotiate a handover providing it is not to a Muslim fundamentalist regime.

There is hardly a mention of opium except to say that, with timber, its illegal export helps to finance arms purchases for the Mujahadeen who are fighting the Russian invaders.

I’m not taunting Griffiths for his failure to see how important Gorbachev would be to the future of the world or how important opium would be to the future of Afghanistan. I’m just pointing out how difficult it is to see the future. There is nothing in Griffiths’ brief look at the future that points to the Afghanistan described by Fariba Nawa.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy

Nawa was nine, in 1982, when her family left their home in Herat to walk to Pakistan before being granted admission to the USA. The book begins with her first return visit to her homeland, eighteen years later, as a California educated journalist. It goes on to detail her various visits, including longer stays working for NGOs, until leaving Kabul in 2007 ahead of the birth of her daughter and leaving her husband behind for a few months to finish his work.

Those visits take her to many parts of the country and include ways of living from inside a protected compound in the newly sprawling capital, Kabul, to primitive villages still under the influence of the Taliban where her presence is viewed with great suspicion and, at least once, her live is clearly in danger.

Underlying every individual story, and there are many, is the impact of opium. Nawa speaks to growers, smugglers, dealers, users and the counternarcotics agents who try and suppress the trade in spite of not knowing if their own bosses are participating in it.

It is a thoroughly interesting read and I strongly recommend it. As I said, this is not a book review. I wanted to write about a number of points where Nawa says things about opium in Afghanistan that have wider applicability.

She describes a street in Baharistan, an area of Kabul. General Asif, head of the National Interdiction Unit (NIU) has allowed her to see it at work by observing a raid on one of the shops after an NIU informant goes in and buys a cassette as a signal to the agents that there is opium on the premises.  The shopkeeper says he sells opium in 5gm lots to support his family and that of his dead brother. Nawa wonders what has been gained by arresting someone who barely makes enough money to feed the thirteen people who depend on him. It’s an example of the harm that can be done by going after the little people in the illegal drugs business that applies anywhere in the world and not just in Afghanistan.

Towards the end of the book, Ms Nawa sums up the situation in 2007. She notes that a UN report, in August, says that there should be ‘an aggressive poppy destruction campaign in the southwest’. That conclusion is strongly supported by the US government but, as Nawa points out, the report ignores the simple truth that forced suppression is a proven failure wherever drugs are grown. She also notes that the emphasis on the money being earned by the Taliban from the drugs business is used to pretend that there is not widespread involvement by senior government figures.

Another concluding point she makes is that if more drug money was invested in development as is happening with some local drug ‘lords’ the country as a whole would be better off. By coincidence, I read that comment on the same day I saw a report in the Economist1 about Tajikistan, the main transit country for Afghan opium and heroin to reach Russia. The article believes that involvement in the drug trade is so prevalent, in the urban areas, at least, that it is the engine driving development and assisting stability. It is sad that this comes at the expense of Russian addicts whose country doesn’t believe in trying to help them.

As I read ‘Opium Nation’ various names leapt out at me; Lashkargah, Helmand, Herat, Sangin, Kandahar. These are names I am familiar with from hearing about the fighting in Afghanistan and reading UNODC reports but, now, they are also places where people are trying to live their lives.


1.Addicted: Heroin stabilises a poor country The Economist 21st April 2012

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