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Afghan government rejects poppy-spraying program

Rebuffs US calls to poison plant used in heroin

Afghan police supervised as a tractor eradicated opium poppies from a field east of Kabul in Afghanistan yesterday. (Rahmat Gul/Associated Press)

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Rebuffing months of US pressure, Afghan President Hamid Karzai decided against a Colombia-style program to spray this country's heroin-producing poppies after the Cabinet worried herbicide would hurt legitimate crops, animals, and humans, officials said yesterday.

The decision, reportedly made Sunday, dashes US hopes for mounting a campaign using ground sprayers to poison poppy plants to help combat Afghanistan's opium trade after a record crop in 2006.

Karzai instead "made a very strong commitment" to lead other eradication efforts this year and said if that didn't cut production he would allow spraying in 2008, a Western official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Counternarcotics, Said Mohammad Azam, said this year's effort will rely on "traditional techniques" -- sending laborers into fields to trample or plow under opium poppies before they can be harvested. A similar campaign during 2006 failed.

Fueled by the Taliban, a powerful drug mafia, and poor farmers' need for a profitable crop that can overcome drought, opium production from poppies in Afghanistan last year rose 49 percent to 6,700 tons -- enough to make about 670 tons of heroin. That is more than 90 percent of the world's supply and more than the world's addicts consume in a year.

The booming drug economy, and the involvement of government officials and police in the illicit trade, compounds the many problems facing Afghanistan's fledgling democracy as it struggles with stepped-up attacks by insurgents loyal to the former Taliban regime.

Top Cabinet members -- including the agriculture, defense, and rural redevelopment ministers -- pressured Karzai to reject the spraying plan, saying herbicide would contaminate water and hurt humans, farm animals, and legitimate produce, according to officials.

The ministers also feared a violent backlash from rural Afghans, the Western official said.

Afghan farmers have sometimes turned to violence to protect poppy plants, which are harvested in the spring and whose profits are believed to flow partly to Taliban militants. Police said two eradication workers were wounded by gunmen Wednesday in western Herat province.

"We're happy with Karzai's decision. Spraying affects the animals and vegetables, even humans," said Asadullah Wafa, the governor of the top drug-producing province, Helmand.

"There is another way to eradicate, like launching operations through all the districts, and I hope the international community will give us tractors and provide more troops to destroy poppies," he said.