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Afghan official quits as poppy crop soars

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghanistan's counternarcotics minister has resigned only weeks after Afghan laborers finished cultivating an opium poppy crop that could exceed last year's record haul.

Habibullah Qaderi's resignation was confirmed yesterday by a deputy minister as US and Afghan officials debate privately whether to use herbicides to reduce the drug problem.

President Hamid Karzai rejected that approach for the 2007 growing season, partly because some Afghans fear the chemicals could affect livestock, legitimate crops, and drinking water -- worries that the United States says are unfounded.

Much of the profit from the country's $3.1 billion drug trade is believed to fund Taliban fighters waging a violent campaign against the government. Officials said yesterday that recent clashes between police and insurgents left 11 suspected militants dead in the south, while Taliban fighters ambushed police in Kandahar Province, wounding 15 officers.

Qaderi submitted his resignation to the president about five days ago, said General Khodaidad, the deputy minister. The resignation was voluntary and driven in part by health problems, he said, though Qaderi has taken a new position in Canada as Afghanistan's consulate general.

Karzai has not named a replacement.

Qaderi has headed the ministry since December 2004 and survived several Cabinet shuffles, but Afghanistan's poppy crop has ballooned under his watch and the country's production last year accounted for more than 90 percent of the world's heroin supply. Western and UN officials have said this year's harvest could equal or exceed last year's record crop.

The United States has proposed spraying the crops with herbicide as it does with coca plants in Colombia, where the US ambassador to Afghanistan, William Wood, previously served.

General Dan McNeill, the top general in charge of NATO-led troops here, has said he expects Western soldiers to step up efforts to combat the drug trade, though they would not be involved in manual eradication of poppy fields.