US presses eradication of Afghan opium poppies

NEW YORK, Oct 8 (APP): With opium and heroin production exploding in Afghanistan, the United States is trying to persuade President Hamid Karzai’s government to start using chemical herbicides to destroy opium poppy, The New York Times reported Monday.

Since early this year, the newspaper said Karzai had repeatedly declared his opposition to spraying the poppy fields, whether by crop-dusting airplanes or by eradication teams on the ground.

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But now, after the largest opium harvest in Afghanistan’s history, Afghan officials say the government is reconsidering that stance, according to The Times. Some officials said a trial programme of ground spraying could begin before next spring’s harvest.

The issue of chemical eradication has divided the Afghan government, its Western allies and even US officials of different agencies, the newspaper said in a dispatch from Kabul, citing US and Afghan officials. “The matter is fraught with political danger for Karzai, whose hold on power is weak,” it said.

Many proponents of the spraying, including officials at the White House and the State Department, view it as the single best hope for curbing Afghanistan’s poppy crop, which has become a major source of revenue for the Taliban insurgency.

But skeptics – including some senior US military and intelligence officials, as well as European diplomats in Afghanistan – say the use of herbicides could provide a propaganda windfall for Karzai’s opponents and push farming communities into the hands of the Taliban.

“There has always been a need to balance the obvious greater effectiveness of spray against the potential for losing hearts and minds,” Thomas Schweich, US assistant secretary of state for international narcotics issues, was quoted as saying. “The question is whether that’s manageable. I think that it is.”

Bush administration officials say they will respect whatever decision the Afghan government makes on the matter. Crop-eradication efforts, they insist, are only one element of a new counternarcotics strategy that will include increased efforts against traffickers, more aid for legal agriculture and development, and greater military support for the drug fight.

Behind the scenes, however, senior Bush administration officials, The dispatch added, have been pressing the Afghan government to at least allow a trial spray programme using glyphosate, a commonly used weed killer.

Although ground spraying would likely bring only a modest improvement over the manual destruction of poppy plants, US officials who support the strategy hope it would reassure Afghans about the safety of the herbicide and thus make possible much more effective aerial eradication.

Afghanistan now supplies 93 percent of the world’s opium and heroin, according to United Nations and Central Intelligence Agency estimates. Traffickers are also processing more and more of the drug into heroin inside Afghanistan, a shift that has exponentially increased the country’s drug revenues since the United States invaded in 2001.

A UN report in August documented a 17 percent rise in poppy cultivation from 2006 to 2007, and a 34 percent rise in opium production. About 70 percent of the opium was converted into heroin domestically, up from about 12 percent in 2005, according to the Kabul office of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

The problem comes into sharpest focus in the southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold, which produced nearly 4,400 metric tons of opium this year, nearly half of the country’s total output, UN statistics indicate.