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Last Updated: Tuesday, 10 February, 2004, 16:11 GMT
The drugs threat to Afghanistan

By Andrew North
BBC correspondent in Kabul

The Afghan government is hoping an international drugs conference it has been hosting in the capital, Kabul, will focus much greater attention on the threat to the country from the illegal narcotics trade.

Man smoking opium
A refugee in Kabul smoking opium
President Hamid Karzai could hardly have been more blunt about how bad things are.

The multi-billion-dollar business that is fed by Afghanistan's vast opium fields is damaging the country's national security, economy and reputation, he said.

"Trafficking and production of heroin helps terrorism," Mr Karzai told delegates. This could "destroy Afghanistan".

Many delegates have talked openly of the country turning into a "narco-state" where drugs barons have more power than the government.

In the major opium-growing areas, some fear that has already happened, largely because of the amount of money generated by drugs - $2.3bn last year, according to the United Nations.

That means an opium farmer may be earning 10 times as much as the government soldier or policeman whose job it is to enforce the law against growing the crop.

'No quick fix'

So what is the solution?

"There is no quick fix," said Rosalind Marsden, the UK ambassador to Afghanistan. The UK is leading international efforts to tackle the problem and has already dedicated 70m to tackling the Afghan drugs trade.

A farmer in a poppy field
A farmer rests during a previous poppy eradication programme

But it has little to show for its efforts so far.

A policy where farmers are paid to destroy their opium poppies (the 'compensatory eradication' programme) has been heavily criticised as a waste of money.

There is hope that a specialist anti-narcotics police unit, which the British are helping to train, will have more impact. The force carried out its first raid last month, on a heroin processing lab in northern Afghanistan.

That was followed by a United States air strike on the lab.

The UN is now calling for action like this to be repeated by foreign troops.

The situation is now so serious that many delegates at the Kabul conference as well as Afghan Government officials are saying that tougher law enforcement is the only possible response. After all, growing opium poppy has been officially illegal in Afghanistan since 2002.

Opium farmers are not poor, that is a myth
Western official in Kabul

Mirwais Yassini, head of Afghanistan's Counter Narcotics Department, promised a "new war against drugs," in an interview with the BBC.

That war would include "a systematic eradication campaign".

The government did take such action last year, but it is promising to devote more people and resources to eradication this year - with Afghan police and troops protecting labourers as they cut down poppy fields.

Legal worries

But many experts fear the authorities are too late starting to do the job properly, as new planting in the provinces of Helmand and Nangahar - two of the key growing areas - is already complete.

Anti-drug poster in Kabul
The government is looking for $300m to use to fight the trade

The other concern is whether Afghanistan's still shaky legal system is up to the task of prosecuting more growers and drugs traffickers.

The Kabul conference renewed a debate among drugs control and development experts over why Afghan farmers keep growing poppy and whether it is fair to crack down on them for doing so.

President Karzai may have condemned poppy growing - but he also said it was "because of poverty" that farmers keep planting the crop.

That is why, he emphasised, there had to be just as much focus on developing "alternative livelihoods".

But some disagree, saying it is not poverty but profit that keeps farmers in the opium business.

"Opium farmers are not poor, that is a myth," said one Western official who takes a much more hardline view on the drugs control debate.

The irony that many experts at the meeting were reluctant to mention was that the only people who have had any success in dealing with the drugs trade were the hardline Islamic Taleban, just before they were overthrown two years ago.

In 2001, in the parts of the country they controlled, they cut back cultivation almost to nothing, using harsh methods to enforce their edict.

The 185 tonnes of opium produced that year - compared to the 3,600 tonnes in 2003 - mostly came from the small area of northern Afghanistan then held by the Northern Alliance that later helped US forces topple the Taleban.

Political gesture

But that success needs to be put in context.

The Taleban cultivation ban in 2001 was more a political gesture, aimed at persuading Western and other states to recognise their claim to Afghanistan's seat at the United Nations.

They had shown no interest in stopping poppy growing in the five years before, after they had taken control of Kabul.

Moreover, they did nothing to stop the trade in opium, so many dealers simply stockpiled supplies, driving up prices.

The answer to the situation today, say UN drugs control officials based in Afghanistan, is going to be a balance of measures, encouraging farmers to find alternative income sources, but also increasing the legal risk to anyone involved in the drugs trade.

But that is going to take many years and will need a lot more outside help and a lot more attention to the issue than there has been until now.

Graphic showing opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan

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