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Iraqis imitating Afghans

Iraqis are taking up opium cultivation, says an article in yesterday’s Independent. This is a very troubling development for the…

By Leslie Young , in 21st Century State-Building Blogs , on January 18, 2008

Iraqis are taking up opium cultivation, says an article in yesterday’s Independent.

This is a very troubling development for the future of Iraq. The last thing that place needs right now is a budding drug economy, on top of everything else that’s going on there.

Want some proof of the danger? Look at Afghanistan.

Afghanistan produces 93% percent of the world’s opium, says the UN. Poppy is grown in the least secure areas of the country – Kandahar and Helmand province, where the Afghan government has the weakest presence and where the Taliban and local warlords have the most control.

Iraq seems to have a lot of these insecure areas. That means lots of room for poppy to grow.

We should care because of how easily a drug economy can undermine the government of an emerging state. In Afghanistan, the opium trade corrupts government officials both high and low.

The most spectacular example was when almost nine tons of opium were found in a provincial governor’s office a few years ago. Farmers also regularly bribe government officials into ignoring their huge poppy fields. Even the President of Afghanistan is known to have ties to the opium trade.

Corruption reduces people’s trust in government – and trust is needed for a new country to function.

The Iraqi government doesn’t exactly have a lot of trust to work with.

Most worrying to Western powers with military forces in such countries, the opium industry directly funds the insurgents that they (and the domestic governments) are fighting against. The Taliban is using its opium money to kill NATO soldiers in Afghanistan on a pretty regular basis.

The international community is already banging its collective head against the wall trying to solve Afghanistan’s opium problem.

If Iraq is starting up now, we should all be worried.