Sat, Dec 06, 2003 - Page 5 News List

Allies at odds over Afghan drugs boom

PLENTIFUL POPPIES Europeans say the US is turning a blind eye to the boom in opium production because it needs the help of warlords who control the harvest


Britain and the US are at odds over how to deal with the massive growth in the cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan.

Poppy growing areas in the country doubled between last year and last year to a level 36 times higher than under Taliban rule, according to figures released by the US last week.

But European intelligence sources and independent experts say that the US, while publicly expressing concern, in practice is turning a blind eye because it needs the support of the warlords, including those in the north who control most of the poppy harvest.

As the White House put it: "A challenging security situation ... has complicated significantly the task of implementing counter-narcotics assistance programs, and will continue to do so for the immediate future."

The area planted with poppies, used to make heroin and morphine, was 61,500 hectares last year, compared with 31,100 hectares last year and 1,700 hectares in 2001, the White House office of national drug control policy said.

The crop will be worth about US$3.45 billion, with the poppy farmers getting about US$1.72 billion and the traffickers a similar amount, according to official US estimates.

The writ of President Hamid Karzai's administration does not run beyond Kabul, and there are insufficient American and other NATO troops in Afghanistan to maintain law and order in the rest of the country, the intelligence sources add.

"If you take the warlords out, the whole system of government goes," said a well-placed official.

A request this week from NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson to allied defense ministers for more forces for Afghanistan received a lukewarm response. The US and NATO also need the warlords to combat the continuing threat posed by fighters supporting the Taliban and al-Qaeda, official sources say.

Another factor, they say, is the relative significance of the Afghan-based heroin trade for the US and Europe. The bulk of the heroin is smuggled through northern Afghan-istan to Russia, or through Iran and Turkey to western Europe. Afghan poppies are responsible for 90 percent of the heroin reaching Britain, according to the government. Very little reaches the US.

In a separate development, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld on Thursday praised two Afghan warlords for surrendering their tanks and howitzers, in what was heralded as a significant boost to the country's security.

The deal between General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, and the ethnic Tajik commander Ustad Atta Mohammed was negotiated with British help.

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