Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Production of opium for medical purposes in Afghanistan

Delivered in Plenary - 24th October 2007

Madam President

It is important that substances derived from opium, like diamorphine (also known as heroin), are available for medical purposes, especially pain relief, but poppy cultivation provides the Taliban terrorists with 20-40% of their funds, which enables them to kill NATO soldiers. Regrettably, Afghan opium production increased 34% this year and constitutes over 90% of global supply.

Troops from my country, the UK, are leading the fight against the Taliban as part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). They do not have the mandate or the manpower to police a large-scale poppy-growing medical project – or, for that matter, to eradicate the crop. They have got quite enough to think about dodging bullets, without becoming part-time market-gardeners.

However, I do have some sympathy, as a doctor, with the arguments put forward by the British Medical Association, which does support cultivating poppies – under strict supervised conditions – to ensure the ready supply of analgesics. My UK parliamentary colleague, Tobias Ellwood MP, has done much to develop a plan of a six-year period of tapered replacement of poppy crops in Afghanistan by cash crops diverting the opium production for medical use.

Therefore, we should at least explore the idea of a very limited pilot licensing scheme, mindful of the danger of it being hijacked by the Taliban for illegal purposes. Any trial will, inevitably, have to be confined to a very small area. It will need support from a range of partner organisations if it is going to work. We certainly cannot divert our brave troops from their vital task of fighting terrorism, but it might just have some beneficial effects all round.

On the issue of EU-Afghan aid, we need a far more coordinated approach by the EU to developing Afghan infrastructure and fighting corruption; otherwise, the Taliban will indeed prevail, as we are barely containing the Taliban in the south of the country.

The West must wake up to the realities of Afghanistan. International bodies are not coordinating their activities properly. The rampant corruption of the Afghan Government means that provinces are losing patience with President Karzai’s Government in Kabul.

The current centralised model of government does not suit the diversity of interests and ethnicities across the country, which has never had a tradition of strong central government in the past. The provinces are currently given no operational funding to pursue objectives separate from Kabul. No long-term economic plan is being followed to harness the plentiful water supply, 92% of which – shamefully and ludicrously – runs out of the country. Construction of dams and irrigation systems would allow industrial-scale growth of fruit and vegetables.

Afghanistan was once upon a time famous for its pomegranates, now very much ‘in’ with the health food lobby. Building a much needed railway system would help ship such goods onto the international market.

If the country is to be rescued from political and economic disaster, much still urgently needs to be done, Madam Commissioner.