BRITISH Army commanders formally took over responsibility for Afghanistan's lawless Helmand province yesterday as Britain's strategy to eradicate opium production and defeat Taleban insurgents was criticised as "doomed to failure".
A report published by the Senlis Council, an independent think tank that monitors Afghanistan's drugs trade, paints a depressing picture of the prospects for the deployment of 3,300 British troops to southern Afghanistan later this month.
It says previous efforts to eradicate poppy farming in the province have fuelled the insurgency that is threatening to overwhelm the Kabul government's control of the lawless region.
Most controversially, it recommends that forced eradication should be replaced by the legal cultivation of poppies for use in legitimate painkilling drugs, such as morphine. The leading producers of legal opium are currently India and Australia.
Serious violence flared in Helmand this weekend as Canadian troops killed up to 20 Taleban fighters who were preparing to ambush a military convoy.
The Defence Secretary, John Reid, visited Helmand's provincial capital, Lashkar Gar, last week. He reaffirmed British support for Kabul's efforts to clamp down on opium production and build up Afghan security forces in the province to counter Islamic insurgents loyal to the old Taleban regime.
Britain has been leading international efforts to counter the drugs trade in Afghanistan since 2002.
But the Senlis Council is pessimistic about the prospects of British troops. After a field visit to Helmand earlier this year, the council reported that opium was the only cash crop in Helmand, generating 50 per cent of the total economic income of the province's population.
The council says widely advertised previous eradication operations in Helmand have worsened the security situation.
It says 1,500 Afghan militia- men have been hired by a US private security company to guard labourers who burn or plough up poppy crops in Helmand. A small number of farmers have been paid to switch to legitimate crops but poor management and other difficulties mean such schemes have paid out only a small amount of money.
Many of the province's one million residents view the Taleban as their defenders and are helping them mount attacks against coalition and Kabul government troops.
"There are widespread allegations that the poppy eradication process is corrupted at many levels and that wealthy individuals are being exempted from eradication," says the report.
"According to farmers, the eradication teams only eradicate fields where the owners or farmers do not pay a 'ransom'. There are strong indications that the farms belonging to powerful people are not being eradicated while the poorer farmers' livelihoods are being destroyed."
Although the British government has stressed that its troops will not carry out eradication but provide security for those involved in it, the report says local people will not see that distinction, and will turn against international military forces.
"The local population has now come to identify international troops with eradication activities rather than with reconstruction efforts."