Poppies torn up in Afghan heroin war
ANTI-DRUGS agents yesterday launched a new onslaught on the Afghan heroin industry in a campaign which is seen as crucial to the success of Britain's military deployment in the region.
Using tractors, they started to tear up fields of green shoots in Helmand province in Afghanistan's poppy belt, which also encompasses Kandahar. Helmand alone accounts for more than a quarter of the country's poppy cultivation. The provinces are Taleban strongholds where insurgent-backed drug gangs have urged farmers to grow the flower.
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium and heroin. The Taleban had cracked down on production in much of the country, enforcing an effective ban on poppy growing under threat of jail.
As a result, cultivation dropped to practically nothing in 2000. But since the invasion in 2001 it has gone unchecked. The latest campaign comes amid warnings of another bumper crop that would supply millions of heroin addicts in Asia and the West and endanger Afghanistan's emerging democracy.
The reaction to the anti-drugs initiative may in part determine whether the British deployment to Afghanistan succeeds. The UK is pouring troops into the difficult Helmand province in the south, with about 3,300 due to be in place within weeks. British troops are not expected to take part directly in the destruction of crops but will be expected to provide security to Afghan agents who are involved in the campaign.
The British troops will need all the support they can get from the local population, but there are fears that the farmers whose livelihoods are destroyed may turn against them. Taleban and al-Qaeda elements have indicated that they intend to try to take on the British forces in Helmand and will hope to receive support from Afghans living in the region.
The problem for the British and the Afghan authorities is that the opium trade is vital to farmers in the region. Getting the farmers to stop growing the flowers - which thrive in Afghanistan's poor soil and abundant sunshine - will take decades, according to Lieutenant-General Karl Eikenberry, the senior US army commander in Afghanistan.
Thailand's largely successful campaign took 25 years. Afghanistan's crop is being eradicated amid a guerrilla war and some of the world's starkest poverty, and is likely to take longer, Lt-Gen Eikenberry said.
One farmer in Kandahar's poppy belt, Haji Abdul Karim, 40, demonstrated the scale of the problem facing the counter-drugs teams. He said planting his 12 acres with poppies was the only way to feed his six sons and two daughters. Revenue from wheat or grapes would not even cover cooking fuel.
"I have no other option," he said. "I don't like growing poppy. If I had another way to earn money, I wouldn't grow it."
The surrounding region is showing the strain of coping with the 4,400 tonnes of Afghanistan's opiate exports.
Neighbouring Iran is now thought to harbour the world's highest per capita heroin use, with as many as three million addicts; Pakistan counts 1.5 million. Afghanistan has flourishing opium dens and 50,000 addicts, about 7,000 of whom inject heroin.
So despite threats by Taleban rebels to defend the poppy farms, about 100 tractors set to work yesterday, moving across the fields in several rows, grinding up the plants in Helmand's Dishu district.
Although the Taleban took a hard line on opium production when it was in power, Afghan and western officials say the militia is now implicated in the trade and uses the proceeds to help fund its insurgency.
That means the counter-narcotics agents have to be protected and some 1,000 heavily armed police and soldiers were deployed as they set to work.
Nationwide, Afghan authorities are planning to destroy 50,000 acres of poppy fields. Last year, opium was harvested from about 257,000 acres, yielding more than 4,100 tonnes of opium - enough for more than 400 tonnes of heroin.
This is already set to be a bumper year. Some 320,000 acres are currently given over to opium production and a UN survey released earlier this week said this year's crop would be larger than last year's - though smaller than the record 2004 crop of about 500,000 acres.
The dramatic increase in poppy cultivation since US-led forces ousted the Taleban from power in late 2001 has caused alarm in the West, particularly in Europe, which is the destination of most of the drugs. Only a fraction of the output is consumed inside Afghanistan.
The US Agency for International Development has earmarked $146 million (84 million) this year for economic development and export-oriented farming projects meant to wean Afghan growers from their reliance on the crop.
The US funds are being used to provide farmers with alternative crops and livelihoods, such as fruit orchards and vegetable gardens, and to build the roads and other infrastructure that are needed for a strong rural economy.
"There's going to be a continuous effort in spring and summer," said Lt-Gen Eikenberry.
One reason cultivation has risen is that threats to cut down last year's crop never materialised, one US drug agent explained. This year, agents hope threats are now backed by action.
Making matters more difficult, farmers like Abdul Karim may receive protection from drug gangs who have warned of attacks on government eradication teams. Last year, several team members were killed in action.
And drug gangs are finding unlikely allies among radical Muslim insurgents, especially in southern Afghanistan, according to Lt-Gen Eikenberry. "We've seen some evidence of co-operation with the Taleban," he said.
He said that the heroin industry had become so strong that the corruption and crime it fosters were endangering the government.
"You've already got a narco-economy here. We don't want it to become a narco-state," the drug agent added, estimating that opium and heroin smuggling accounted for more than 35 per cent of Afghanistan's struggling economy.
US and British authorities, who have helped train special anti-narcotics police squads, hope to have 50,000 acres of this year's crop eradicated before sap is collected, refined into heroin and smuggled to markets across Asia and Europe.
Last year they chopped up only a quarter of that total.
Poppy eradication started in neighbouring Kandahar province two weeks ago and there have been no reports of violence. About a quarter of Afghanistan's opium is produced in Helmand, more than double that grown in any other province.
"We have started in Dishu and we will work our way up from the south of Helmand to the north, destroying poppies in every district and village," said Ghulam Muhiddin, the provincial administrator.
On Monday, Afghan drug eradication teams tore up crops in Nangarhar province, where dozens of Afghan police armed with AK-47s blocked angry farmers from interfering with the work.
That initiative coincided with a warning from the Afghan government and the United Nations that they expected cultivation of opium poppies to increase across large swaths of the country this year.
Afghanistan's government has been criticised for not being tough enough on the burgeoning drug trade and anti-drugs minister, Habibullah Qaderi, has even accused senior government officials of being involved in the trade.
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