Sunday, June 28, 2009

US to reverse Afghan opium strategy

The following is from Al Jazeera:

The United States is to dramatically overhaul its anti-drug strategy in Afghanistan, phasing out its opium poppy eradication programme, the US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan has said.

Richard Holbrooke said on Saturday that 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 G8 foreign ministers' meeting on Afghanistan, during which he briefed regional representatives on the new 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.

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

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

Highs and lows

Afghanistan is the world's leading source of opium, cultivating 93 per cent of the world's heroin-producing crop.

While opium cultivation fell 19 per cent last year, it remains concentrated in Afghanistan's southern provinces where the Taliban earned an estimated $50 million to $70 million, according to the UN drug office.

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 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 G8 ministers that Washington was increasing its funding for agricultural assistance from tens of millions of dollars a year to hundreds of millions of dollars.

"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.

Tricia DeGennaro, a US analyst with the World Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera: "Farmers are making quite a bit of money on cultivating poppy for opium.

"[Holbrooke] is going to a more traditional programme of eradication of narcotics which is already being done in many parts of the world - targeting labs, traffickers and warlords as well.

"The trick here is going to be enabling the farmers to do something else."

Crackdown

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.

According to a UN report this week, opium eradication reached a high in 2003, after the Taliban were removed from power, with over 21,000 hectares destroyed.

In 2008, only 5,480 hectares were cut down, compared with 19,047 hectares in 2007.

The UN's Costa said Afghan opium would kill 100,000 people this year in the parts of world where demand for heroin is highest - Europe, Russia and West Asia.

To fight it, he said major powers had to expand their counter-drug efforts to neighboring Pakistan as well as Iran, where half the 7,000 tons of exported Afghan opium transits, "causing the highest addiction rate in the world".

"Facing a grave health epidemic, Iran should be given the chance to engage in common efforts to combat illicit trafficking," he said.

Iran had been invited to attend the G8 meeting on Afghanistan, because anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan have been identified as a key area where the US and Iran can work together.

But Italy withdrew the invitation after Iran failed to respond and after its severe crackdown on demonstrators protesting against the country's election result, which has sparked international condemnation.


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