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US altering its Afghan drug policy

Ending funding for eradication of opium crop

By Nicole Winfield
Associated Press / June 28, 2009
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TRIESTE, Italy - The United States is shifting its strategy against Afghanistan’s drug trade, phasing out funding for opium eradication while boosting efforts to fight trafficking and promote alternate crops, the US envoy for Afghanistan said yesterday.

The aim of the new policy: to deprive the Taliban of the tens of millions of dollars in drug revenues that are fueling its insurgency.

Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said poppy eradication - for years a cornerstone of US and UN drug trafficking efforts in the country - was not working and was only driving Afghan farmers into the hands of the Taliban.

“Eradication is a waste of money,’’ Holbrooke said on the sidelines of a Group of Eight foreign ministers’ meeting on Afghanistan, during which he briefed regional representatives on the policy.

“It might destroy some acreage, but it didn’t reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban. So we’re going to phase out eradication,’’ he said. The Afghan foreign minister also attended the G-8 meeting.

Eradication efforts were seen as inefficient because too little was being destroyed at too high a cost, said Antonio Maria Costa, the UN drug chief.

The old policy was also deeply unpopular among powerless small-scale farmers, who often were targeted in the eradication efforts.

Afghanistan is the world’s leading source of opium, cultivating 93 percent of the world’s heroin-producing crop. While opium cultivation dropped 19 percent last year, it remains concentrated in Afghanistan’s southern provinces where the Taliban is strongest and last year earned insurgents an estimated $50 million to $70 million, according to the UN drug office.

While there was no immediate comment from Kabul yesterday, the US policy shift probably will be welcomed by Afghanistan’s government. Officials eradicating poppies have often been attacked by militants. Afghan citizens, many of whom rely on farming for sustenance and income, would also invite new agricultural programs.

The new policy calls for assisting farmers who abandon poppy cultivation. Holbrooke said the international community wasn’t trying to target Afghan farmers, just the Taliban militants who buy their crops.

“The farmers are not our enemy, they’re just growing a crop to make a living,’’ he said. “It’s the drug system. So the US policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban.’’

Holbrooke told the G-8 ministers that Washington was increasing its funding for agricultural assistance from tens of millions of dollars a year to hundreds of millions of dollars, said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy, the current G-8 president.

“We’re essentially phasing out our support for crop eradication and using the money to work on interdiction, rule of law, alternate crops,’’ Holbrooke said.

The policy also calls for coordinating a crackdown on drug trafficking across Afghanistan’s border before the heroin reaches addicts in Europe, Russia, and Iran.

In recent months, US and NATO troops in Afghanistan have begun attacking drug labs and opium storage sites in an effort to deprive the Taliban of drug profits.

The G-8 foreign ministers “strongly appreciated’’ the policy shift, Frattini said. Costa said the new focus “seems to be the winning strategy, and I’m glad that all of this has received support from the G-8 ministers.’’

The G-8 ministers and Rangin Dadfar Spanta, the Afghan minister of foreign affairs, issued a statement at the end of their three-day summit yesterday saying it was urgent to find alternatives for farming communities where “narco-trafficking and extremism are endemic.’’

They said sustainable farming was key to Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s future in that it would boost incomes, create jobs, improve rural development, and lower regional tensions.

Costa told the G-8 meeting that the recent dip in cultivation was “vulnerable to relapse’’ without helping farmers with new crops and boosting law enforcement operations to disrupt drug markets, production labs and convoys.

According to a recent UN report, opium eradication reached a high in 2003, after the Taliban were ousted from power, with over 51,900 acres destroyed. In 2008, only 13,500 acres were cut down, compared with 47,000 acres in 2007.