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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 March, 2005, 19:11 GMT
Quandary of Afghan opium industry
By Andrew North
BBC Kabul correspondent

Yet again, an alarming study on the rise in opium production in Afghanistan - source for most of the world's supplies of heroin.

An Afghan farmer works in a wheat field that has replaced opium poppy
Aid agencies think radical measures like eradication would backfire
Like many previous surveys, the annual report from the International Narcotics Control Board warns of the risk to the country's stability, because of a near record opium poppy harvest last year.

In fact, there is nothing new here, as far as Afghanistan's opium trade is concerned.

The figures in the report were all released last November by the INCB's sister organisation, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

But the key and still unresolved issue is what to do about the problem.

On one side of the debate is the US government - cautiously backed by the UK - which wants an aggressive programme of eradicating or cutting down opium crops over the next few months.

On the other side are development agencies, who say the focus on eradication will not work and that there is no chance of significant change until the farmers who grow opium are offered viable "alternative livelihoods".

Somewhere in the middle is President Hamid Karzai and his government. He has promised a "holy war" against the opium trade, which he describes as a "disgrace" to his nation.

But he too is concerned about pressing farmers too hard.

We expect the government to help us. If not, we will have to grow poppy again
Afghan farmer
Although the UK still officially leads international efforts to fight the Afghan drugs trade, the US has effectively taken over - having earmarked $780m (408m) for anti-narcotics programmes over the next year.

It paid the issue only limited attention in the first few years after the fall of the Taleban. The war on terror took precedence.

That laid-back attitude has gone, amid fears that the drugs trade now threatens Afghanistan's stability, and therefore US political and reconstruction goals here.

'Colombia-style war'

But aid agencies are concerned that current US strategy calls for the destruction of up to 30,000 hectares of poppy fields over the coming year - about 25% of the area cultivated in 2004.

It is pouring millions into funding "eradication teams" to cut down poppy crops.

Some have accused the US and British governments of secretly spraying already in eastern and south-western Afghanistan as part of this policy, although both have strenuously denied it.

British Foreign Minister Jack Straw, left, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai
The UK has vowed to help Afghanistan eradicate heroin trade
According to one development expert who did not want to be named: "The US is starting another Colombia-style war on drugs here."

American officials in Kabul dismiss this.

The issue that has done most to encourage such criticism is talk of aerial spraying. They say they resisted pressure from Washington for it to be implemented.

Along with US military commanders, they fear the potential unrest it could provoke - particularly with parliamentary elections due later this year.

They also point out that large sums are going into alternative incomes for farmers.

Thai solution

Nonetheless, aerial spraying is still an option US anti-drugs officials are considering for next year. And they insist that some eradication has to take place this year.

Many in the development community totally disagree.

"Eradication has never worked," says Leo Brandenberg of the German development agency GTZ, which runs a European-funded aid project for farmers in the eastern province of Nangahar - the second most important opium growing area.

A Thai volunteer destroys opium poppies during the opium eradication
Thailand's "enlightened approach" proved successful
A more "enlightened approach" is needed, he argues - something like that followed by Thailand in dealing with its illegal opium trade in the 1980s - a policy in which Mr Brandenberg was himself involved.

The Thai authorities gave opium farmers a "grace period" of four years.

They were given help to find alternatives, and only when that time had elapsed were they penalised for growing poppy.

Instead, the Thai government focused on breaking up heroin processing and trafficking networks - where the big profits are made.

"There were many battles," says Mr Brandenberg, "but it worked".

He admits Thailand had two major advantages over Afghanistan: far better security, and money.

Political consequences

In any case, the opium trade was always small in relation to the rest of the Thai economy. But in Afghanistan, it accounts for 40% to 60% of economic output, depending on which estimate you accept.

That is another reason why other aid agencies argue against drastic measures like eradication. It could cause real hardship.

Alternative livelihood programmes and tougher action against traffickers have to come first, says Michael Kleinman of Care Afghanistan.

"It's critical these initiatives be phased in before eradication, if eradication must occur," he says.

The irony of this debate is that there are signs that this year's opium crop will be much smaller.

Afghan billboard reading "poppy cultivators are criminals who bring disasters to Afghanistan and the world".
Some two million Afghans are involved in opium production
It is too early to be sure, but the BBC has seen evidence in some poppy growing areas that some farmers are heeding government warnings not to plant it.

But as one farmer in Nangahar put it: "We expect the government to help us. If not, we will have to grow poppy again."

That is the fear among many aid agencies - that any progress this year could be squandered because not enough effort has been put into alternative livelihood schemes.

Another concern is the lack of progress in going after the bigger players in the drugs trade.

A UK-trained specialist anti-drugs police force has carried out a series of raids on heroin labs, although the evidence is never shown publicly.

A few mid-level traffickers have been imprisoned, but for the most part the drugs mafia have little to fear from a still very weak Afghan police and judiciary.

And with parliamentary elections planned for this year, many analysts here fear that the government will yet again put off serious action, for fear of the political consequences.

But Mr Brandenberg advises everyone to be patient. It took 20 years to turn things round in Thailand, he says. "It is likely to take much longer here."

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