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August 8, 2006 - The Guardian (UK)

US Defends Opium Policy Despite Afghanistan Violence

By David Fickling

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

America's drug tsar, John Walters, today acknowledged that US allies have voiced doubts about the wisdom of opium eradication in parts of southern Afghanistan where insurgents have killed 10 British troops over the past two months.

Speaking during a visit to London for talks with British officials, Mr Walters recognised that the situation in Helmand province had been "difficult".

In recent months, officials within the British government and military have privately expressed growing disquiet about the role of opium eradication in fuelling the Afghan insurgency.

Unrest in Helmand, where 4,800 British troops are stationed under the command of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf), has claimed the lives of 10 British soldiers since the start of June. Before then, only two British soldiers had been killed in the whole country since October 2001.

The British army chief, General Sir Mike Jackson, has said eradication would be "counterproductive" unless done when all other conditions were right and the Conservative whip, Tobias Ellwood, last month called for the opium crop to be legalised.

But Mr Walters today said that eradicating the opium crop was the only way for Afghanistan to achieve lasting peace.

"Sometimes we talk as if security and drugs control are at odds, but the places where we have the best security are the places where we have some of the best drugs control," he said. "[Afghan farmers] know that their future and that of Afghanistan depends on rule of law, not being ruled by drug mafias."

Local officials say that the eradication programme is corrupting local government and driving support for the insurgency, as richer farmers pay bribes to protect their opium crops and poor farmers who can't afford bribes are forced into the pay of the Taliban.

Emmanuel Reinart, the director of the Senlis Council, a pro-licensing thinktank, said that the eradication policy was destroying trust between Afghan farmers and central government.

"Directly attacking the livelihood of farmers like this has very counterproductive side effects. Locals see these eradication programmes are conducted by foreigners and they often assume that they're being organised by Nato troops, which makes it harder for those troops to gain local trust," he said.

But Mr Walters dismissed the group's proposals to license opium production as "a sideshow" and said there was no market for the legal opium that licensing would produce.

"[Farmers] understand that the Taliban and the drug barons are on one side and [the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai] and the international community are on the other side, and we are trying to allow them to make the choice between those sides in a way that works," he said.

The total number of hectares under opium poppy cultivation dropped 48% in Afghanistan during 2005, although a more recent study by the UN office of drugs control found that production only sank 2.4% as individual farms became increasingly productive.

Around 90% of the UK's illegal heroin originates in Afghanistan and, despite around 36m being spent annually on opium eradication by the US and Britain, officials expect the opium crop to increase this year.

Mr Walters said there was a perception that the US was pursuing crop eradication before any attempts had been made to provide farmers with alternative means of income. But he insisted that many areas of the country had shown considerable progress in wiping out the trade.

"To say that we are losing ground or [eradication is] not making progress requires you to look at this in a very, very distorted way," he said.

Afghanistan's counter-narcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, will visit London tomorrow to discuss the role of US drug policy in his country at a conference that will also be attended by Mr Walters.

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