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Monday, 26 November, 2001, 13:42 GMT
US concern at Afghan opium surge
poppy field
The UN warns of a rise in poppy cultivation
American officials are exploring ways to prevent a surge in opium cultivation in Afghanistan, now that the Taleban control over the country is collapsing.

Representatives of US anti-drugs agencies have met to begin developing a strategy to persuade Afghans not to grow opium - the raw material for heroin - in a post-Taleban world.

With the poppy-planting season in Afghanistan now under way, time is running out for Western agencies to offer alternatives to farmers who are planning to harvest the drug next year.

International donors are discussing the reconstruction of the war-shattered country at a conference in Pakistan on Tuesday, and some US anti-narcotics officials want to make drug-fighting a condition for international humanitarian aid.

The farmers are poor people and they need money, and the opium crop is a profitable crop for them

Mohammad Amirkhizi, UNDCP

Under the Taleban authorities, poppy cultivation was prohibited.

The ban had been decreed by the Taleban's spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar in July 2000 and led to a massive fall in production in the last growing season, according to the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP).

However, the UNDCP already warned in October of a possible rise in opium production as many farmers began ignoring the ban after the 11 September attacks on the United States.

Rivals profit

In territory held by the Northern Alliance, opium production was never banned and production rose dramatically when the Taleban cracked down on poppy cultivation further south. Some of the Taleban's rivals are believed to have profited directly from the drugs trade.

With the anti-Taleban forces now quickly extending their control over the country, there are fears that more farmers will go back to growing opium poppies.

Heroin seizure
Most of Afghanistan's opium ends up as heroin on Europe's drugs market

The head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Asa Hutchinson, said it was too early to tell how co-operative the Northern Alliance will be in fighting the opium trade:

"Certainly we are not naive (in thinking) that the Northern Alliance does not have their own interest and history in poppy cultivation and trafficking. But it is certainly a new world in Afghanistan and we are just going to have to work hard to encourage an anti-drugs policy."

For many poor farmers in the war-ravaged country, growing opium poppies is the only way to survive - and planting wheat or other cash crops often proves unfeasible.

"We don't have much water, so with narcotics we make more money to offset the problem of the drought", farmer Gul Haidar told the Associated Press news agency.

Help for poor farmers

UN experts say that besides insisting that the next Afghan government curb poppy cultivation and trafficking, the international community needs to provide opium farmers with help in switching to legal crops:

"The farmers are poor people and they need money, and the opium crop is a profitable crop for them", says the UNDCP's Mohammad Amirkhizi.

US officials agree. "We certainly want to find alternatives to opium production" says Andrew S. Natsios of the US Agency for International Development.

But he also says that Afghanistan needs to become more stable before his agency can start implementing any crop substitution programme.

Otherwise, experts warn, Afghanistan could once again become the world's leading exporter of opium.

See also:

20 Nov 01 | South Asia
Afghanistan's huge rebuilding task
22 Oct 01 | South Asia
Afghans planting opium after strikes
04 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: The heroin trail
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