Artemisia annua (Qinghao)
Afghanistan is never very far from our news media these days, with the regular announcements of casualties, and the more occasional megaleak, or world conference. Occasionally we hear that opium production has reached record proportions, or that a wedding party has been blown to smithereens by us, or our allies. It is both depressing and frustrating, for we feel so powerless in the face of an apparently unremitting beastliness that amounts to madness.
My present train of thought started with opium; half a million acres of this pernicious weed, fuelling conflict in Afghanistan and sordid moral collapse in our own cities. The Taliban had all but eradicated poppy growing, but under our "protection" heroin production has soared year on year to 6000 tons of resin. Occasionally we hear of crops being destroyed, but our half-hearted efforts in that direction seem further designed to lose us friends and thus the battle for hearts and minds. Are we doing enough? Are we tasking the army with too much? After all, "to a man with a hammer everything looks like a nail".
What about the allies BUYING the opium crop? That way we could collar the lot if we paid the right price. It would of course expand our "foreign aid" budget, but it would establish a positive link with the growers. What about encouraging farmers to grow other high value crops that are also suited to the sun-drenched soil. We would need expert advice here but what about lavender or roses for the perfume industry, or Artemisia annua which I understand produces a fabulously expensive anti-malarial drug called artemisinin?
We read about McChrystal, Petreaus, and more cryptically about "Britain's most senior general in Afghanistan"; we understand the accumulating military cost of British operations in Afghanistan to be some 10B£ (above our normal military budget). But who is in charge of our reconstruction team? What is our budget for education, culture, infrastructure, and our war against the opium poppy? I am pointing this accusatory question firmly at the British media. Tell us what we have done that is creditable! Is there a conspiracy of secrecy? Of course, the media may justifiable point back at the bloodthirsty British public who are horrified and fascinated by blood, but woefully indifferent to the rest.
It is not as though there is no one working to help and encourage Afghani farmers. If you dig deeper into the subsoil of the world-wide-web you come across Mark Henning's efforts for Joint Development Associates International, Inc which is working to improve agriculture in northern Afghanistan; and The Council on Foreign Relations, an American non-profit think tank of some venerability (founded 1921) which discusses many creative projects in the area. And there are other excellent papers, unparented but clearly funded by the US government such as one by S. Alan Walters on "Vegetable Production in Balkh Province of Afghanistan and RecommendationsÉ" There is a Swedish Committee for Afghanistan with programmes in education and health, and (until 2007) agriculture. But I have found nothing that links Britain with agriculture in Afghanistan.
So, PLEASE, let us hear more about the positive and noble efforts of dedicated people, of British role models if there are any, so that we may be heartened, and stimulated to volunteer ourselves; so that we may lift up our heads again instead of squirming with embarassment at the whole Afghanistan fiasco.