Afghan drug trade may hit new peak in 2008

January 03, 2008

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KABUL: Afghanistan’s already booming drugs trade is likely to grow even more this year, the head of foreign troops in the country said on Wednesday, warning this would bankroll the Taliban insurgency.

Afghanistan’s poppies already produce more than 90 per cent of the world’s heroin, but the government, the United Nations, donor countries and commanders of the 40,000-plus foreign force are divided over how best to tackle the problem.

General Dan McNeill, commander of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan, told his first news briefing of the new year on Wednesday that there was a clear link between poppy growing and the strength of the insurgency.

“When I see a poppy field, I see it turning into money and then into IEDs, AKs and RPGs ...,” he said referring to the improvised explosive devices, Kalashnikov rifles and rocket propelled grenades favoured by the Taliban.

Acknowledging he had little hard data to back him up, McNeill estimated that 20-30 per cent of Afghanistan’s multi-billion dollar illicit drug economy — vastly bigger than the formal economy — was funding the insurgency.

With long-term weather forecasts suggesting perfect growing conditions this year, rising demand and higher prices, both the industry and insurgency will grow unless “pressure, incentives or dissuasion” are significantly increased, he said.

While the hardline Islamic Taliban managed to virtually eradicate poppy cultivation in the year before they were ousted by a US-led force after the Sept 11 attacks on the United States, the crop has made a remarkable comeback in the years since Western-backed President Hamid Karzai took power.

The Taliban, backed by foreign fighters, including Al Qaeda operatives, have made a comeback too — and not coincidentally in the south and east, heartland of poppy production.

CHEMICAL SPRAYING: Most analysts agree that the simplest way to wipe out the drugs trade is to eradicate, with chemical spraying, poppy crops while they are in the field.

But the government, less than confident of its rule outside the capital and other main centres, is reluctant to alienate the rural population, hundreds of thousands of whom are dependent on poppy production for their livelihoods.

The poppy, requiring water just once every five days while growing, is a perfect crop for Afghanistan’s frequently dry summers where irrigation is generally provided by snow melt from the mountains.

Western-led crop replacement programmes have worked in areas where security has allowed development and construction projects to develop irrigation schemes to sustain them, but in the Taliban “badlands”, the poppy is still king.

McNeill, emphasising how concerned he was at the growth in the drug industry, said tackling the problem was beyond his mandate.

“ISAF is neither trained, manned nor equipped to be an eradication force,” he said. “The government of Afghanistan must take it on, but it needs help to do so.”

On the insurgency, McNeill said he expected the Taliban would be reluctant to take on “toe to toe” either foreign troops or the Afghan National Army and would instead resort to “asymetrical tactics” including suicide bombings and IEDs.

“There have been some spectacular events,” he said, referring to a spate of Taliban bomb blasts last year in which hundreds of people, mostly civilians, were killed or injured.

“But 70 per cent of events occurred in 10 per cent of the country. Much of this country enjoys a fairly good degree of security.”—Reuters