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Guardian Unlimited Politics | Special Reports | Allies at odds over how to fight Afghan drugs boom

Allies at odds over how to fight Afghan drugs boom

Richard Norton-Taylor and James Astill in Kabul
Friday December 5, 2003
The Guardian

Britain and the United States 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 2002 and 2003 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 Washington, while publicly expressing concern, in practice is turning a blind eye to the opium crop because it needs the support of the warlords, including those in the north of the country who control the bulk of the poppy harvest.

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

The area planted with poppies, used to make heroin and morphine, was 152,000 acres (61,500 hectares) in 2003, compared with 76,900 acres in 2002 and 4,210 acres in 2001, the White House office of national drug control policy said.

The crop will be worth about £2bn, with the poppy farmers getting about £1bn and the traffickers a similar amount, according to official US estimates.

The writ of President Hamid Karzai's administration does not run beyond the capital, 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 Lord Robertson, the outgoing Nato secretary general, to allied defence 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-Qaida, 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 Afghanistan to Russia, or through Iran and Turkey to western Europe. Afghan poppies are responsible for 90% of the heroin reaching Britain, according to the government. Very little reaches the US.

An eradication and compensation plan promoted by MI6 two years ago ended without a lasting effect because of the lack of any follow-up scheme.

The former Taliban regime controlled poppy cultivation, but even it was open to corrupt dealings. Now poppy growing is increasing rapidly, particularly in north-eastern areas of Afghanistan under Tajik control, Christopher Langton of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said.

If any poppy eradication and replacement programme has a hope of succeeding, "the international community will have to increase resources", he said.

Mr Langton said some of the opium was "leaking" south to Pakistan, and that al-Qaida might be getting hold of some of it.

Today the British government will announce the "Kabul gates" scheme - checkpoints designed to deter drug smuggling, manned by Afghan security forces trained in a British-led programme.

Britain is organising a conference in Kabul early next year to promote "greater sharing of the [drug] problem", the foreign minister Bill Rammell told the Guardian.

In a separate development, Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, yesterday 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 the help of a British provincial reconstruction team led by Colonel Dick Davis. The two warlords had recently engaged in armed clashes near the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif.

Within hours of the deal being announced, a rocket exploded outside the US embassy in Kabul late yesterday, during Mr Rumsfeld's fleeting visit to the country. It landed in wasteland about 250 metres from the embassy, said an Afghan army spokesman, who blamed the attack on Taliban insurgents or members of another Islamist militia.

No one was hurt in the explosion. It was not clear whether Mr Rumsfeld was inside the embassy, or even in Kabul, at the time.

An Afghan aid worker was killed and 11 people wounded yesterday in an ambush in western Farah province. The killing takes to 15 the number of aid workers murdered in Afghanistan in recent months.

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