January 12, 2010
In the week where Alastair Darling has been called to defend the motivations of Tony Blair in his decision to join the war in Iraq and full-body airport scanners have been rolled into service at airports across the UK, it is refreshing to see the efforts of Kartick Satyanarayan, whose work to provide sustainable incomes for individuals and families has had a profound effect across India.
Satyanarayan’s work with the Kalandar community in India highlights the manner in which questionable and illegal trades should be tackled, with implications for tackling the foundations of Islamist support. In Afghanistan over 3 million people make their living from the production of the illegal opium flower. Since the 2001 invasion the US has imported the tactics it has learnt in tackling its South American drug-producing neighbours. Burning the fields from the ground has been a key aspect of the policy, yet despite this agenda to eradicate, Afghani poppy production has soared, by some estimates having doubled in the last two years. Possibly this is partly due to the higher rate of heroin addiction amongst the Afghani population but more likely is an increase on consumer demand within the West.
The ability of Islamic fundamentalist ideology to flourish in these conditions is rife. The illegal nature of the poppy crop means the industry is tied to the Afghani underworld, thus it is in fairly direct contact (and by some accounts under direct control) of/by the Taliban. It is unlikely that the threat of radical Islam will diminish whilst support is able to flourish within populations deprived of income or education, where fundamentalist mythmakers can ferment an ideology of hatred against the West.
Although on a different scale, Satyanarayan has shown, the only manner in which an morally questionable industry can be challenged is economically. The militant Islamist cause is only furthered by Western policies of poppy destruction. Governments must ensure that the livelihoods of individuals can be protected when their income is deemed to be criminal. Reformed western policy seems to have taken this into account, placing ‘alternative livelihoods’ above ‘eradication’ on their counter-opium policy yet so far the efforts have been small, the emphasis as always being placed upon military solutions. The decision, taken six months ago to end the eradication strategy must be hailed as a turning point in the Afghan conflict.
Without the financial and human support that fanatical Islam garners in Afghanistan from the poppy industry it is likely that it would be significantly weakened. Western governments must begin to see the potential in either setting up Afghani farmers with alternative incomes or simply buying up the crop themselves. Even if they are simply able to isolate the farmers from the criminal underworld they will have succeeded some manner in undermining the roots of radical Islam in Afghanistan. The addition of education and opportunity can only accelerate the process.
(Then we wouldn't need the full body scanners at the airport!)