Taliban drive poppy output to a record again

Taliban drive poppy output to a record again

Afghanistan: Afghanistan produced record levels of opium in 2007 for the second straight year, led by a staggering 45% increase in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand Province, according to a UN report to be released on Monday.

The report is likely to spark renewed debate about the US' $600 million counter-narcotics programme in Afghanistan, which has been dogged by security challenges and endemic corruption within the Afghan government. "I think it is safe to say that we should be looking for a new strategy," said William B. Wood, the American ambassador to Afghanistan, commenting on the report's overall findings. "And I think that we are finding one."

Wood said the current American programmes for eradication, interdiction and alternative livelihoods should be intensified, but he added that spraying poppy crops with herbicide remained "a possibility." Afghan and British officials have opposed spraying, saying it would drive farmers into the arms of the Taliban.

While the report found that opium production dropped in northern Afghanistan, Western officials briefed on the assessment said cultivation rose in the south where Taliban insurgents urge farmers to grow poppy. Although farmers make comparatively little from the trade, opium is a major source of financing for the Taliban, who gain public support by protecting farmers' fields from eradication, according to American officials. They also receive a cut of the trade from traffickers they protect.

In Taliban-controlled areas, traffickers have opened more labs that process raw opium into heroin, increasing its value. The number of labs in Helmand rose to about 50, from 30 the year before, and about 16 tonnes of chemicals used in heroin production have been confiscated this year.

The Western officials said countrywide production had increased from 2006 to 2007, but they did not know the final UN figure. They estimated a countrywide rise of 10-30%.

The new survey showed positive signs as well, the officials said. The sharp drop in poppy production in the north is likely to make this year's countrywide increase less than the growth in 2006. Last year, a 160% rise in Helmand's opium crop fuelled a 50% nationwide increase. Afghanistan produced a record 6,100 tonnes of opium poppies last year, 92% of the world's supply.

Here in Helmand, the breadth of the poppy trade is staggering. A sparsely populated desert province twice the size of Maryland, Helmand produces more narcotics than any country on earth, including Myanmar, Morocco and Colombia. Rampant poverty, corruption among local officials, a Taliban resurgence and spreading lawlessness have turned the province into a narcotics juggernaut.

Poppy prices that are 10 times higher than those for legal crops have so warped the local economy that some farmhands refused to take jobs harvesting legal crops this year, local farmers said. And farmers dismiss the threat of eradication, arguing that so manylocal officials are involved in the poppy trade that a significant clearing of crops will never be done.

American and British officials say they have a long-term strategy to curb poppy production-modelled after successful, decade-long efforts in Pakistan and Thailand. About 7,000 British troops are gradually extending the government's authority in some areas, they said. And the US Agency for International Development is mounting a $250 million alternative livelihoods programme in southern Afghanistan, most of it in Helmand.

Loren Stoddard, director of the aid agency's agriculture programme in Afghanistan, cited American-financed agricultural fairs, the introduction of high-paying legal crops and the planned construction of a new industrial park and airport as evidence that alternatives were being created.

Stoddard, who helped Wal-Mart move into Central America in his previous posting, predicted that poppy production had become so prolific in Helmand that the opium market was flooded and prices were beginning to drop.

"It seems likely they'll have a rough year this year," he said, referring to Helmand's poppy farmers. “Labour prices are up and poppy prices are down. I think they're going to be looking for new things."

On Wednesday, Stoddard and Rory Donohoe, the director of the aid agency's alternative livelihoods programme in southern Afghanistan, attended the first "Helmand Agricultural Festival." The $100,000 American-financed gathering in Lashkar Gah was an odd cross between a Midwestern county fair and a Central Asian bazaar, designed to show Afghans an alternative to poppies. Under a scorching sun, thousands of Afghan men meandered among booths describing fish farms, the dairy business and drip-irrigation systems. Some wealthy farmers seemed genuinely interested. Others seemed keen to attend what they saw as a picnic.

When Stoddard and Donohoe arrived, they walked through the festival surrounded by a three-man British and Australian security team armed with assault rifles.

After Afghans began dancing to traditional drum and flute music, Donohoe, 29, from San Francisco, briefly joined them.

Afghans gave the fair mixed reviews. Haji Abdul Gafar, 28, a wealthy land-owner, expressed interest in some of the new ideas.

Saber Gul, a 40-year-old labourer, said he was too poor to take advantage. "For those who have livestock and land, they can," he said. "For us, the poor people, there is nothing."

Local officials said all the development programmes would fail without improved security. Assadullah Wafa, Helmand's governor, said his own police were too weak to take and hold territory, and he praised British military attempts to extend his authority. Wafa said four of Helmand's 13 districts were under Taliban control. Other officials put the number at six. Wafa, who eradicated one-quarter of the acres of the governor in neighbouring Kandahar Province, called for Western countries to decrease the demand for heroin.

"In the international legal system, both the growing and consuming are against the law," he said. "The world is focusing on the production side, not the buying side."

The day after the agricultural fair, Stoddard and Donohoe gave a tour of a $300,000 American project to clear a Soviet airbase on the outskirts of town and turn it into an industrial park and civilian airport.

Standing near rusting Soviet fuel tanks, the two men described how pomegranates, a delicacy in Helmand for centuries, would be flown out to burgeoning markets in India and Dubai. Animal feed would be produced from a local mill, marble cut and polished for construction.

"Once we get this air cargo thing going," Stoddard said, "it will open up the whole south."

That afternoon, they showed off a pilot project for growing chilli peppers on contract for a company in Dubai. "These kinds of partnerships with private companies are what we want here," Donohoe said. "We'll let the market drive it."

As the Americans toured the farm, they were guarded by five Afghans and five guards from the British security firm. The farm itself had received guards after local villagers began sneaking in at night and stealing produce. Twenty-four hours a day, 24 Afghan men with assault rifles staff six guard posts that ring the farm.

"Some people would say that security is so bad that you can't do anything," Donohoe said. "But we do it."

Wafa, though, said the effort remained too small and was "low quality."