Sunday, January 21, 2007

Opium war revealed: Major new offensive in Afghanistan

Published: 21 January 2007
The Independent UK

The Kabul government is planning to take the war to its illegal drugs trade. And once again, it will put Britain's exhausted troops back into the firing line. Raymond Whitaker reports

British troops in southern Afghanistan, already engaged in stiff fighting with the Taliban, face a new threat as the Kabul government prepares to crack down on the country's rampant drugs trade.

The Independent on Sunday has learned that in the next week to 10 days, 300 members of the Afghan Eradication Force (AEF), protected by an equal number of police, will begin destroying fields of ripening opium poppies in the centre of lawless Helmand province, where Britain has some 4,000 troops. While British forces will not be directly involved in the operation, commanders concede that they will have to go to the aid of the eradication teams if they encounter armed resistance. "A backlash is definitely possible," said one senior officer.

The poppy fields to be targeted are on the Helmand river near Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital and headquarters of the British task force. The area has deliberately been selected because it is in the relatively peaceful "development zone", well away from the fighting which claimed the lives of two Royal Marines in the past week. "These people are growing poppy out of greed rather than need," a British counter-narcotics official in Lashkar Gah told the IoS. "They could earn a living by other means."

The Afghan government has rejected calls for defoliants to be sprayed on the crop, and the plants will be cut down by hand, or crushed by tractors dragging heavy metal bars behind them. The British official said there were some 22,000 hectares of opium poppies in the target area. The Afghan operation might destroy up to a third, if it didn't encounter trouble, "but it depends on the security situation as much as anything".

The attempted crackdown will be a crucial test of the Afghan government's willingness and ability to gain control over an illegal drugs trade which not only helps to finance the Taliban insurgency, but contributes to endemic violence and corruption, reaching to the highest levels of President Hamid Karzai's administration. Afghanistan produces over nine-10ths of the world's illicit opium, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and more comes from Helmand than any of the country's other 28 provinces. Half of the heroin on British streets originates there.

Despite the deployment of British forces in Helmand last year, opium production in the province soared by 160 per cent, faster than anywhere else in Afghanistan. A record crop was harvested in May under the noses of arriving British troops, and the area under cultivation increased further during the autumn planting season.

"It is is wall-to-wall poppies everywhere you look, just a mile or two from Lashkar Gah," said a source who travelled out of the provincial capital last week. "There was some early planting by people hoping to beat any crackdown, but the weather has also favoured growers, with rain at just the right time. The crop will be earlier this year than in 2006."

As soon as they moved to southern Afghanistan, senior British officers dissociated themselves from suggestions in Whitehall that they would seek to stamp out the drugs trade. They were aware that a badly handled eradication operation in 2002 had sown deep bitterness: big growers paid bribes to save their crops, and it was small farmers with no other livelihood who suffered. Funds to compensate them were misspent or stolen.

Poppy cultivation has since been declared illegal, and no compensation will be paid this time. "The aim is to go after the big operators, who grow opium with impunity on government-owned land they have seized," said the official. "It will be a powerful disincentive if they are seen to have lost their crops, although some smaller farmers will inevitably suffer. But they are in an area where funds are available, mainly from USAid, for 'cash for work' projects, such as road building and canal clearing."

International pressure has been applied to the Kabul government to remove officials implicated in the drugs trade, such as Abdul Rahman Jan, the former police chief of Helmand. Last February the provincial governor was sacked and replaced by Mohammed Daud, an English-speaking engineer and ex-UN worker.

When he fell victim in December to internal political wrangling, it was feared that his deputy, Amir Muhammad Akhundzada, a member of a clan with close links to the drugs trade in northern Helmand, would take over, but he too was ousted.

This month's eradication move is being carried out by the Kabul government, with the provincial administration having no say. The local authorities are supposed to make their own efforts to stamp out narcotics, but Governor Daud, fearing the backlash from destruction of crops, concentrated instead on seeking to persuade farmers not to plant poppies. It is understood that his successor, Asadullah Wafa, will meet President Karzai in Kabul tomorrow to discuss further measures to deal with the trade.

Even if the AEF succeeds in destroying a third of the poppies in their target area, or about 7,000 hectares, that would be barely one-10th of the total under cultivation in Helmand, which could still produce more opium this year than last. But the British official said eradication was only one strand of an anti-drugs strategy in which the main priority was to target the big traffickers.

An international think tank, the Senlis Council, is backing a radically different approach to the Afghan drugs problem. It says the world is suffering a shortage of legal opiates for medical use, and argues that buying up the entire Afghan poppy crop for legitimate purposes would not only be more cost-effective, but would cut out the traffickers and lead to a sharp reduction in violence. The group says this strategy worked in Turkey, which was one of the main sources of illicit opium and heroin in the 1960s before switching to legal production.

But the British official dismissed the plan, saying it would founder on Helmand's "utter lawlessness". He added: "In Turkey they were able to force farmers to sell their crop to legal buyers. Here they will sell to the highest bidder, and the traffickers will always go higher, because they can still make a profit. The economics don't hold up."

Opium: Facts and figures

Opium dominates Afghanistan's economy: the illegal trade is worth $2.6bn (£1.3bn) a year, more than a third of the country's gross domestic product.

ORIGINS: A traditional crop for centuries in the mountainous border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the opium trade exploded during the 1980s, when it helped to finance the mujahedin war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

BLOWBACK: With heroin laboratories springing up on both sides of the border, gun violence, corruption and drug use has spread in Pakistan, which has some three million heroin addicts.

THE TALIBAN: After the Pakistan-sponsored Taliban swept to power in Afghanistan in 1996, it initially raised money by taxing opium production. But under UN pressure it finally cracked down, reducing the area under cultivation from 91,000 hectares in 1999 to only 8,000 in 2001, when it was ousted in the wake of 9/11 for hosting Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida.

EXPLOSION: Opium growing soared as soon as the Taliban fell, rising to 74,000 hectares in 2002. The head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime says it reached over 400,000 hectares last year, producing a record 6,100 tonnes of opium - 92 per cent of the world supply.

HELMAND: Afghanistan's largest province produces 40 per cent of its opium and half the heroin in Britain. The poppy-growing area grew 160 per cent in 2006.


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