Mon, Dec 11, 2006 - Page 5 News List

US to spray Afghan poppies with herbicide

OPIUM DEN As the country's production rose 49 percent this year the top US anti-drug official said that ground spraying needs to take place unless it is to turn into a narco-state


The top US anti-drug official said that Afghan poppies would be sprayed with herbicide to combat an opium trade that produced a record heroin haul this year, a measure likely to anger farmers and scare Afghans unfamiliar with weed killers.

John Walters, the director of the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, said on Saturday that Afghanistan could turn into a narco-state unless "giant steps" are made toward eliminating poppy cultivation.

"We cannot fail in this mission," Walters said.

"Proceeds from opium production feed the insurgency and burden Afghanistan's nascent political institutions with the scourge of corruption," he said.

Afghans are deeply opposed to spraying poppies. After nearly three decades of war, Western science and assurances can do little to assuage their fears of chemicals being dropped from airplanes. Because of those fears -- and because crop dusters could be shot down by insurgents -- spraying would need to be done on the ground.

The Afghan government has not publicly said it will spray, and President Hamid Karzai has said in the past that herbicides pose too big a risk, contaminating water and killing the produce that grows alongside poppies.

But Walters said Karzai and other officials have agreed to ground spraying.

"I think the president has said yes, and I think some of the ministers have repeated yes," Walters said without specifying when spraying would start.

"The particulars of the application have not been decided yet, but yes, the goal is to carry out ground spraying," he said.

Afghanistan's deputy minister for counter-narcotics, General Khodaidad, said the government hadn't yet made any decisions. But a top Afghan official close to Karzai said the issue was being looked at closely.

"We are thinking about it, we are looking into it. We're just trying to see how the procedure will go," said the official, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Opium production in Afghanistan this year rose 49 percent to 6,100 tonnes -- enough to make about 670 tonnes of heroin. That's more than 90 percent of the world's supply and more than the world's addicts consume in a year.

A US official told reporters last month that if Afghans don't spray next year "there's going to be a lot of pressure on the government for spraying ... a lot of pressure from the US."

The official asked not to be named.

At the news conference on Saturday, Walters tried to emphasize to the largely Afghan media members in attendance that spraying was perfectly safe. He said the herbicide glyphosate -- sold commercially in the US under the name Roundup -- would be used, and that it was a safe and common weed killer.

He said the US uses glyphosate to spray marijuana plants in Hawaii and that it's also used against coca plants in Colombia.

"We are not experimenting on the people of Afghanistan," Walters said.

"We are not using a chemical that has a history of questionable effects on the environment," he said.

Walters said he didn't expect the fight against poppies "to be a one year success story."

A recent UN report said it would take a generation -- 20 years -- to defeat the drug trade in Afghanistan.

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