November 7, 2004
By Brian Brady
In the brutal years of the Taliban the flow of heroin from Afghanistan was stemmed by the regime which outlawed poppy production as "un-Islamic".
Three years on from the fall of the religious fundamentalists a new report has revealed that British forces have failed to control the booming industry of illicit opium production in the country.
Now a frustrated Tony Blair is to appeal to the US for more help in tackling the drug routes from Afghanistan.
Ministers are resigned to the prospect that a United Nations report on the trade in opium since the fall of the Taliban will show a "significant increase" in poppy cultivation, with tonnes of the pure heroin produced destined to wreak havoc on the streets of UK cities. The damning report, from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), was scheduled for release last Thursday, but its publication was pulled at the last minute, with no explanation given.
The spiralling trade is a particular embarrassment for the government, which has taken the lead in the campaign to stamp out the world's principal source of the heroin production in thousands of acres of poppy-fields throughout Afghanistan, and committed £70m of taxpayers' money to the project since taking charge in April 2002.
Two years ago, Afghan farmers reaped some 2,700 tonnes of opium, producing 250 tonnes of pure heroin, a harvest 14 times bigger than the previous year, the last under the Taliban.
Production spiralled to 3,600 tonnes in 2003, but despite the desperate efforts of the UK forces and the Afghan government, it is expected to soar even further this year.
The latest update from UNODC follows a shocking report earlier this year which warned that more than two-thirds of all Afghan farmers intended to increase their opium production this year. Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell hinted that the only consolation was the possibility that natural factors might limit the harvest. "Increases in production may be proportionally lower given lower yields due to drought and disease," he said.
Newly-elected Afghan president Hamid Karzai last week insisted that driving out his country's opium and heroin smugglers will be his top priority, and the key to reining in warlords resisting the authority of the central government.
But Scotland on Sunday understands that the Foreign Office is frustrated that Britain has had to shoulder the burden of the eradication effort, piloting measures including the destruction of acres of poppy fields and enticing opium farmers into other areas of agriculture. Blair has also ordered special forces into action to carry out raids on crops.
The UK is urging Karzai's government to take an active role in action including crop destruction, but it will also ask the Americans to allow more of their 14,000 troops in the country to take part in the increasingly desperate efforts to staunch the flow of cheap heroin out of Afghanistan.
"No one will say this in public, but it is fair to say that there is a degree of frustration about the American attitude to this," one senior Foreign Office source said last night. "They have thousands of troops in the country; the drugs problem is a problem for all of us. There is a view that they don't see destroying crops as a job for serving soldiers."
The British plan is for more American assistance with an accelerated crop-destruction programme, using high-toxicity chemicals sprayed from the air to eradicate the lucrative harvest before it can be reaped. The Americans have played a leading role in a similar large-scale effort to destroy coca crops in Colombia before they can be converted into cocaine for the US market.
Afghanistan is now poised to overtake Colombia as the world's most prolific producer of narcotics. UN officials have repeatedly warned that the burgeoning harvest is contributing to instability and even terrorist campaigns in the war-ravaged country. "The fight against terrorism will be more effective if drug trafficking is interrupted," said UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa.
But the government's former drugs tsar, Keith Hellawell, maintains that the best way to solve the problem is to buy tonnes of poppies from the farmers, to prevent them reaching the international market, a drastic option the government has so far resisted.
The Prime Minister cited the destruction of the heroin trade as a key war aim when committing British support for the US strikes against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in late 2001. Karzai, then leader of the Afghan Interim Administration (AIA), bowed to international pressure and banned opium poppy cultivation in January 2002. Nonetheless hundreds of farmers later ripped up their wheat-fields and planted more lucrative illicit crops.
British forces are committed to the effort to stabilise Afghanistan, through the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the drug-eradication effort. The Department for International Development (DfID) is supporting organisations working with farmers to help them identify and try a range of legal alternative crops, working in a number of poppy growing provinces across Afghanistan, including Badakhshan, Kandahar and Helmand. The organisations, including the Aga Khan Foundation and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, provide seeds, fertiliser and tools.
But the UN report on farmers' intentions suggested much of the work had been in vain, with Costa warning that "the opium production problem in Afghanistan will continue to present a considerable challenge to the Afghan government and the international community in the period ahead".
Two farmers out of three interviewed shortly before planting time, stated that they intended to increase significantly their opium poppy cultivation in 2004, citing persistent poverty, high opium prices and access to credit from traffickers through the advance sale of the future opium harvest as the main reasons for continuing their involvement in the deadly trade.