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Allies fall out over poppy spraying

May 29, 2007

By Guy Dinmore in Washington and Rachel Morarjee in Kabul, published May 29 2007
Western governments are in disarray over how to deal with surging opium production in the areas of Afghanistan hardest hit by the Taliban insurgency.

The increases in the opium harvest and areas under cultivation this year could top the 60 per cent rise that saw 172,600 hectares given over to poppy farming in 2006. Most of the increase came from the southern province of Helmand where British troops are stationed, counter-narcotics officials said.

Five years of faltering rural development plans have led to the US pushing for eradication through the spraying of herbicide, in the face of mounting opposition from European allies and Afghan officials.

“The entire situation is a mess and a complete embarrassment,” said Mirwais Yasini, a member of the Afghan parliamentary committee on counter-narcotics.

“There is no united front from the west and there is not a concrete plan from the government either. Foreign countries can do a certain amount but we can’t blame them for all of our failures,” he added, describing corruption involving police chiefs, governors and some levels of the central government.

William Wood, the new US ambassador to Kabul who oversaw US-backed coca-eradication programmes in Colombia, is understood to have told the Europeans spraying will begin next year.

Thomas Schweich, US co-ordinator for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, argued that aerial eradication would eventually enable the country to destroy 25 per cent of the crop – a figure which represents the theoretical point at which farmers are persuaded to switch crops, according to studies cited by Mr Schweich.

Eradication by hand and machine is already being carried out. US figures of cleared acreage are disputed but there are plans to destroy 25,000 hectares this year, up from 15,000 in 2006.

However, Afghan officials and many western military officers argue that crop spraying is likely to fuel the escalating insurgency, further complicating the fight on drugs.

“Aerial eradication will maximise the antagonism against the government,” Mr Yasini said.

Nato generals are also worried. Some governments have warned that their commitment to staying in Afghanistan would be jeopardised if Nato forces were used in counter-narcotics.

General Dan K. McNeill, commander of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force, said Nato guidance to Isaf was to “assist [eradication efforts] within capability”. But he stressed that Isaf was not an eradication force.

“We are not manned, we are not equipped and we are not trained. Eradication done improperly is counter-intuitive to running the counter-insurgency because it will alienate people and you may have more insurgent people appearing than you had before,” he said.

The image of Afghanistan as a failed “narco-state”, where illicit proceeds enrich corrupt officials and the insurgency, is shaping up as a theme in US politics.

Democrats accuse the Bush administration of having waged the wrong war by diverting resources from Afghanistan to Iraq. Members of Congress are demanding action, spurring the administration to find a fast solution.

For the UK, which has the international mandate to deal with narcotics in Afghanistan, the more aggressive US approach – which also stresses the interdiction and prosecution of drug traffickers – is troubling.

Habibullah Qaderi, Afghan minister for counter-narcotics, says the Europeans were in favour only of targeted eradication in cases where alternatives could be provided, whereas Americans felt more broad-based eradication “would be a quicker solution”.

He told the FT in Kabul: “So far our policy stands. If we have no other choice we will do spraying, but it is the last resort. For the time being we still say no.”

Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institution expert on the nexus between military conflict and illicit economies, says the US believes the British are “going wobbly” and has set up parallel counter-narcotics institutions to push harder for eradication.

Mr Schweich said US generals had made the “reasonable conclusion” in 2001 not to engage in counter-narcotics. But now, as swelling drug revenues were seen to be financing the Taliban, the US military was “more interested in the problem”.

Last year, the US thought it had the go-ahead from the government for spraying but President Hamid Karzai reversed course.

But Ms Felbab-Brown contested whether the programme could be effective. “The scenario that you suppress cultivation and they [insurgents] go bankrupt has not happened anywhere,” she said.

She said the vast majority of poor poppy growers, facing the loss of their livelihood, would resort to desperate measures, including selling their daughters to pay debts, ending up in servitude or fleeing to Pakistan.

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