The US is proceeding with plans for a big crop-spraying programme to destroy opium poppies in Afghanistan, in spite of resistance from the government of President Hamid Karzai and objections from some senior US military officers who fear it will fuel the Taliban insurgency.
A US delegation will soon leave for Kabul to persuade Mr Karzai that glycophate, a herbicide that is widely applied by US farmers, is safe to use and that trial ground-spraying should begin for the first time since the US ousted the Taliban regime in 2001.
But controversy over the proposed spraying is causing rifts within the Nato alliance. Some governments, including Germany, want nothing to do with the eradication programme and are threatening to reconsider their posture in Afghanistan, diplomats say. Afghan security forces trained by Dyncorp, a private US defence contractor, are to carry out the spraying.
“There has to be a stick that goes with the carrot,” said Ambassador Thomas Schweich, US co-ordinator for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan. Eradication had to be a component of US policy, he said.
Mr Schweich said no decision had been reached on aerial spraying and this would rest on agreement with the Afghan government. But he made it clear that crop spraying was the preferred US approach, combined with economic development and information programmes as well as robust efforts to interdict drug traffickers.
Pointing to a map of Afghanistan, he described a broad north-south divide. Poppy cultivation had either fallen sharply or stabilised in the north-central provinces that were more secure, but risen in the west, south and east, where the Taliban insurgency was gaining strength.
Eradication would target wealthier farmers who had spurned other development options, he said. “We are not targeting poor farmers. This is fiction,” he said.
Afghanistan supplies over 90 per cent of the world’s opium, but the crop also accounts for about a third of the country’s entire economic output.
“The US is hell-bent on eradication,” said Robert Rotberg, Harvard University professor. “They claim it worked in Colombia and so will work in Afghanistan. It is not clear to anyone it worked in Colombia,” he added.