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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 April 2007, 19:55 GMT 20:55 UK
Tackling Afghanistan's opium problem
By Alastair Leithead
BBC News, Helmand province

The lush fields of Helmand's river valley flash by from the vantage point of an open back door of a British military Chinook transport helicopter.

Eradicating poppy farms
Eradication is being used to try and curb the problem

But the greenery clinging to the river banks is an oasis for the farmers and the smugglers who are producing more opium poppies than ever this year, and making more heroin for Britain and Europe.

There is guerrilla war waging in the province, but there is still plenty of time to harvest the gum from the poppy bulbs and set the traffickers in motion.

Britain has the lead in Afghanistan for dealing with the drugs problem - liaising with the government to bring the production levels down.

But in the south it has never been as bad - in the next few weeks Helmand province is expected to harvest more poppies than the rest of the country combined, making it the biggest opium producing area in the world.

Growing alternatives

The strategy is persuading farmers to grow something else, by improving markets, suggesting new crops, bringing economic growth and development - roads and markets.

Eradication is being used as a consequence - to increase the risk to farmers of losing their annual crop, while helping them switch to growing alternatives.

Massoud Azizi
Massoud Azizi has responsibility for counter narcotics.

In the eastern province of Nangahar, Massoud Azizi has responsibility for counter narcotics.

He joined in the eradication of one small poppy plot on poor land, swinging his wooden stick alongside the policemen and members of the eradication force, chopping the bulging poppy pods clean off their stalks.

But again it has not worked - after two years of record decline in poppies in this province, the wheat has again been replaced and the opium is back.

"We have cleared many more fields than last year," he said, "but there has been an increase."

"It will take time," said the outgoing British Ambassador to Kabul, Stephen Evens.

"I think the policy is right but it is not something that is going to deliver this year or next year.

"Ten or 25 years to have a serious impact on narcotics production and trafficking here, I think that would be realistic."

Legalise it

The models of places like Thailand also suggest it will take many years, but the international community wants instant gratification, and the pressure is on Britain to come up with a better plan, as each harvest breaks a new production record.

Poppy fields
Each poppy harvest breaks a new production record.

The Americans want to use aerial spraying to destroy the fields, but the British view is that could drive thousands of angry farmers to join the insurgency.

The British military working under the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) make it clear to local people. "We are not here to destroy your poppy crops," their radio propaganda broadcasts and leaflets say.

They know that the counter-insurgency strategy of winning hearts and minds relies on turning a blind eye to the way most people in Helmand make a living.

The lack of success so far has also given life to another argument - legalise and license the poppies and turn them into medicines rather than heroin.

It is an idea being pushed by the Senlis Council, a non-governmental organisation working in southern Afghanistan.

Mixed messages

The Tory MP Tobias Ellwood has taken their views to the House of Commons and even made a case directly to Tony Blair.

"This is a pilot scheme, on a limited basis, to license the cultivation of poppies into codeine and morphine," he said.

Dead poppies
The policy could take years to have any effect

"This would be a way to win over the hearts and minds of farmers and will deny the terrorists the money they're getting for sale of heroin and opium. It will also help create a market so they can be moved onto other products as well."

But British ambassador Stephen Evans disagrees: "It won't work. It's not the silver bullet and there are a lot of reasons why it's not the silver bullet. The economics are all wrong for a start.

"You can't regulate in an environment where security is uncertain where judicial and legal processes aren't really working."

And it does not look like that is going to change in Helmand any time soon.

The British government may want to desperately reduce opium production, but the British military - the only ones with the access to the biggest producing areas - are not interested.

It is all sending a very mixed message to Afghan farmers.



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