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Last Updated: Sunday, 4 December 2005, 18:45 GMT
Losing the war on Afghan drugs

By Andrew North
BBC News, Lashkar Gah, Helmand

"Of course we're growing poppy this year," said the district chief. "The government, the foreigners - they promised us help if we stopped. But where is it?"

A farmer extracting opium from a poppy blossom
In 2004, Afghanistan produced 90% of the world's opium

You hear similar things from many other people in Helmand province in Afghanistan - the number one opium poppy producing region in the number one opium producing country in the world.

If there's a central focus for the international and Afghan government campaign to stamp out the trade, it's here.

And here many believe drugs profits directly fund Taleban militants, for whom parts of Helmand remain a haven.

But after a small drop in Helmand's opium cultivation this year - according to UN figures - many fear a sharp increase next year.

Dealing with Afghanistan's drugs problem since the fall of the Taleban has been a big failure here - a failure that soaks into every aspect of the country's progress
If that happens, the British and US governments will take much of the flak. Together they have been leading international efforts to tackle the problem.

Hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of British and US taxpayers' money have been spent. But it's mostly been water off a duck's back to a business that is deeply rooted and underpins the still war-ravaged Afghan economy - especially in remote places like Helmand.

Approach questioned

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair recently admitted that his government had little to show for four years of effort since the fall of the Taleban.

But recent studies call into question the international community's whole approach to the problem.

Helmand has become a specific challenge to the UK which is gearing up to send several thousand troops and civilian advisers to the province next spring. Tackling drugs will be top of the agenda.

I spoke to one Afghan elder - sporting a large, black Taleban-style turban, still common in this region - who asked not to be named.

He had just emerged from a council meeting with Helmand's governor and other district chiefs. Governor Sher Mohammed Akhunzada had been urging them to spread the message to farmers not to sow opium again. It's planting time now.

They heard the same message this time last year - government officials here say this year's small decline is evidence it's getting through.

But is this sustainable? There were already warning signs. While Helmand recorded a 10% decline in opium cultivation in 2005, in neighbouring Nimroz it went up by a spectacular 1,370%.

It's believed many of those involved in the Helmand trade moved to Nimroz because it is even more remote and weakly policed.

The international community has to demonstrate that it's just as concerned about the problem as it affects Afghanistan
Afghan government official
And at the council meeting in the Helmand governor's guesthouse there was a restive mood and complaints that promises had not been met.

"What happened to the new roads and irrigation canals, the jobs we were told about?" the elders asked.

As always at such meetings, there were excuses too. "Why does the government tell us to stop growing opium when it's doing nothing about alcohol use and prostitution?" one man demanded.

"Opium is not mentioned in the Koran, but alcohol and prostitution are."

Evidence hard to find

Helmand is supposed to have received $55m of "alternative livelihood" development aid this year, according to the UN's drugs control agency.

Helmand governor Sher Mohammed Akhunzada
We need the British to stop the smugglers
Governor Sher Mohammed Akhunzada
That's $55 for every person in the province, a quarter of the average annual income here.

But it's hard to find any evidence of it in Helmand, where the tarmac on the roads runs out well before you leave the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah.

There have been some "cash for work" schemes, employing people on basic infrastructure projects like clearing drainage ditches.

But they don't pay enough to compensate people for losing their opium incomes, especially for the poorest farmers who are often deeply indebted to local drugs barons.

British and US counter-narcotics official argue, though, that there was never any chance of a quick replacement for opium.

But in major drug-producing areas that was not how farmers and community leaders understood things, according to a new European-Union funded study about the links between Afghanistan's opium economy and conflict.

Complying with President Hamid Karzai's edicts to stop growing poppy "was explicitly seen as conditional on rapid compensation and rural development", say the authors.

Helmand bazaar
Few in Helmand are aware British troops are about to arrive

The implicit message from the meeting at Governor Akhunzada's guesthouse was that farmers would be planting again. Even he admits a rise in poppy cultivation is likely.

"It's not only because the farmers don't have alternatives," he says. "It's also because the Taleban and al-Qaeda are forcing them to grow poppy."

He wants more pressure put on the traffickers, the people higher up the chain who make the bigger profits and provide the market.

"We need the British to stop the smugglers," he says.

In Helmand, though, many regard the local administration as part of the problem because of widespread corruption. Many people here are calling for the government in Kabul to replace it.

Motives questioned

For some time, many drug control experts and development workers have been saying similar things, that there's too much focus on farmers and eradicating their opium crops.

There is mounting concern back in the capital, Kabul, about the way things are going.

"We may be in danger," a senior Afghan government official told the BBC. "The farmers did listen to President Karzai, but they may lose confidence in him if they don't get more support."

There's scepticism, too, about the West's motives on the drugs issue, that its only real concern is reducing the supply of heroin to its own streets.

"The international community has to demonstrate that it's just as concerned about the problem as it affects Afghanistan," said the official.

Dealing with Afghanistan's drugs problem since the fall of the Taleban has been a big failure here - a failure that soaks into every aspect of the country's progress.

More and more, people are realising it's going to take a long time to reverse.

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