Afghanistan's no quagmire, it's an anti-malarial swamp

With everyone off in Bali dealing with the urgent menace of global warming or panting over Karlheinz Schreiber’s semi-revelations, might I interest you in some malaria?

No thanks? Lacks glamour? OK, malaria doesn’t hand you $100,000 in cash and not ask for a receipt. It doesn’t excite Hollywood celebrities or in a pinch make you one. But it is the No. 1 killer of children in Africa. Plus I found something new and encouraging to say about it in an unexpected venue: a Senlis Council press conference on Afghanistan.

I confess to going in with vague suspicions that the council were among the usual suspects on foreign policy. They seemed to be calling the Afghan mission a disaster and most people who do so are engaged in wishful thinking like, of course, most of those calling it a success.

One of the weird and wearying things about issues like Iraq or Afghanistan is the way people’s assessment of what is happening so often reflects what they wish was happening. Like the Wednesday New York Times headline, “A Calmer Iraq: Fragile, and Possibly Fleeting.” Who knew they’d say that?

I started reading the Senlis handouts about Afghanistan unravelling and the Taliban taking over and I’m thinking “Yeah, yeah.” And then suddenly they’re demanding that NATO double its expeditionary force and the Euro-slackers send more troops into the dangerous south and into parts of Pakistan. Then Senlis warned that setting a timetable for Canadian withdrawal was a recipe for another Rwanda or Srebernica.

I already knew the Senlis Council thought paying Afghan farmers to cultivate poppies for medical purposes instead of heroin is far better than U.S.-backed crop eradication that alienates Afghans without staunching the flow of illegal drugs. And I suppose ideas make strange bedfellows because I already agreed. But I was pleasantly surprised when council president Norine MacDonald told the press conference CIDA was doing such a wretched job of delivering aid in southern Afghanistan that the Canadian Forces should take over.

When questioned later about the impression it would create if we militarized aid, she said it would create the impression starving people were getting food and she wasn’t going to heed “theological” objections from the “aid and development community” who didn’t have a better plan or any plan at all. Cool. She also reminded us how horribly the Taliban treated women last time. Are you listening, Mr. Dion and Mr. Layton?

Then she handed the microphone to Amir Attaran, Canada Research Chair in Law, Population Health and Global Development Policy at the University of Ottawa, to discuss the link between Afghanistan and fighting malaria. Yes, he’s also the guy in a dispute with DND over treatment of Afghan prisoners and Access to Information. Which again made me skeptical because while I dislike government secrecy, I’m not inclined to fuss unduly about the fate of irregular combatants in hideous guerrilla wars, nor to reproach the Afghan government for the quality of its paperwork when it can’t even pay its police.

Anyway, the good professor turned out to be a malaria enthusiast. Uh, let me rephrase that. He’s a passionately committed expert who wants the “international community” to do more about malaria.

There is no “international community” (fortunately) but let me recommend the rest of his plan. I had somehow acquired the impression malaria was manageable, not curable, that retired Indian army majors tended to start shaking every few months for the rest of their lives and downing quinine cocktails (a.k.a. gin and tonic) to suppress symptoms. It turns out one type of malaria does recur but not the lethal Plasmodium falciparum variety ravaging Africa. And that one, falciparum, is curable. Dr. Attaran says a simple course of pills, usually for three days for about a dollar, does the trick.

Here’s the punch-line: The medicine he advocates (Artemisinin Combination Therapy or ACT) is in short supply but is principally derived from a hardy plant called Artemisia, or “sweet wormwood,” easy to grow in Afghanistan. So his idea is to raise charitable funds to pay Afghan farmers to grow sweet wormwood, pay other Afghans to extract the key ingredient, then donate it to the World Health Organization to process into medicine.

I don’t think this idea, alone or combined with the medical poppy plan, would completely stop the flow of illegal drug money to the Taliban. But it would contribute to the success of the Afghan mission while saving hundreds of thousands of lives a year cheaply.

When the muckamucks get back from their Bali yak-fest and finish shovelling their snow maybe they should look into it. Or we could just go ahead without them.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]