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Afghanistan At Odds With US On Plan To Curb Opium

Bloomberg News Service, August 8, 2007

by Janine Zacharia

Aug. 8 (Bloomberg) -- Afghanistan is at odds with a U.S. strategy to stem opium production that is funding the Taliban and other militants opposed to President Hamid Karzai's rule, according to a top Afghan diplomat.

While the Bush administration is seeking to expand efforts to destroy opium poppy plants, Afghanistan wants to emphasize long-term crop substitution.

"We think it's better to put more resources on preventing cultivation because once it's cultivated, it's too late," Said Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the U.S., said in an interview yesterday. "You eradicate it, you lose the support of the people."

The debate over how to counter Afghanistan's burgeoning output of opium, the raw material for heroin sold on European streets, is likely to sharpen tomorrow with the release of a U.S. drug-fighting strategy.

"Right now the approach of the United States is more emphasis on eradication," Jawad said. "But not only us, your friends the British do not agree with that either, and say no, that's not the right approach."

Jawad stressed that rather than "punishing extensively the farmers, we have to go after traffickers."

President George W. Bush and Karzai discussed the problem when they met Aug. 6 at Camp David in Maryland.

'Watching, Measuring'

Bush, with Karzai at his side, said the Afghan leader understands that farmers must be given the incentive to "grow crops other than poppy and that he knows full well the United States is watching, measuring and trying to help eradicate poppy cultivation."

William Wood, the new U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said in late June that "there is not yet a consensus regarding eradication." He lamented last year's results -- about 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) or 10 percent of the total Afghan crop eliminated. Wood was ambassador to Colombia while the U.S. mounted a major effort there to shrink cocaine production.

"As a result, we are exploring new techniques that we will coordinate with the government of Afghanistan and the international community," Wood said in a statement posted on the U.S. Embassy's Web site.

In Colombia, the U.S. funded the spraying of herbicides on coca fields by crop dusters protected by helicopter-backed military forces. The Colombians also use the more labor-intensive approach of pulling up plants by their roots.

The anti-drug effort, known as Plan Colombia, is aimed at curbing the flow of drug money to guerrillas and strengthening the authority of the elected government.

Raising the Stakes

Ambassador Thomas Schweich, U.S. counter-narcotics coordinator in Afghanistan, told a conference in Washington two weeks ago that eradication would be pursued in places where alternatives to opium poppies are available. He said research shows that about a quarter of the poppy crop needs to be destroyed in such areas to deter farmers from planting it the next year.

"When they see they got a one in four chance of losing everything, they'll start thinking about taking the alternative that was developed," he said, according to a recording of his remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Schweich said other steps, including interdiction of opium and a campaign to inform the public about drug-terrorism ties, would be needed.

Failed Efforts

A U.S. government assessment of its counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan, released on July 31 by the inspectors general of the State and Defense departments, illustrated what a failure the U.S. effort has been to date.

During fiscal year 2006, the U.S. spent more than $420 million combating Afghan narcotics. Still, the number of Afghans involved in cultivation grew to 2.9 million from 2 million in 2005, equivalent to an eighth of the population.

Acreage devoted to poppy cultivation in 2006 was about 59 percent higher than in 2005. In 2006, income generated inside Afghanistan from the narcotics industry represented about 60 percent as much as that from legal economic activities.

"It is self-evident that there is no politically feasible way to outspend economic incentives that drive the narcotics trade," the inspectors general said. If the entire poppy crop were converted to heroin, its street value would be $38 billion, they estimated.

Taliban, Traffickers

A State Department report earlier this year described a relationship in which traffickers supply weapons and money to the Taliban in exchange for the protection of drug trade routes and poppy fields.

The consequences are stark for the U.S. efforts to weaken al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the report said.

Without an effective counter-narcotics effort, "the corrupting influence of the narcotics industry would likely set the stage for Afghanistan's reemergence as a safe haven for international terrorist operations," the inspectors general said.

The U.S. has 23,500 troops in Afghanistan and has spent more than $23 billion on reconstruction since the 2001 invasion that toppled the Taliban.

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