WASHINGTON - A rejuvenated campaign to crack down on Afghanistan's booming heroin trade could backfire and end up alienating large sectors of the population from the government of President Hamid Karzai, warn Afghan development and rights groups.
In a letter sent last week to incoming US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the organizations, which include Care, Oxfam International and Women's Edge Coalition, said that massive poppy eradication efforts risk undermining the progress the country has made since the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001.
"It has the potential to turn millions of Afghans against a government which is struggling to extend its reach and strengthen its authority," according to the letter, which stressed that poppy cultivation has now spread to all 34 of Afghanistan's provinces.
Since the Taliban's ouster, Afghanistan has become the world's largest producer of opium by far, accounting for roughly 87% of the world's opium and its heroin derivatives, according to one recent UN report.
Because farmers can make as much as 10 times the income of other crops, opium has not only become the country's biggest export; the opium trade now accounts for as much as 40% of Afghanistan's total economy.
According to the US Office of National Drug Control Policy, the amount of land under poppy cultivation increased by nearly 240% and opium production by 73% from 2003 to 2004.
As a result, the nearly 20,000 US military troops and the 7,000 members of the International Support Assistance Force are being pressed to add counter-drug operations to their security and counter-insurgency efforts. The Bush administration had allocated US$780 million to that end for 2005, about two-thirds of which were to be spent on eradication.
But the groups argue that the plans need to be revised, because eradication, particularly aerial spraying, for which some $152 million was earmarked, could destabilize the countryside by depriving millions of small farmers of their livelihoods without providing any viable alternative.
"Widespread eradication in 2005 could undermine the economy and devastate already poor families without giving rural development projects sufficient time to provide alternative sources of income," according to the letter.
Threats of eradication have already resulted in higher opium prices, enriching traffickers who already have large inventories and are spurring a shift in production to more remote areas of the country.
Eradication without viable alternatives and programs to pay off their debts will probably only force farmers to mortgage their lands to the traffickers themselves and send their children, especially girls, into bonded labor or prostitution, according to the groups.
"An effective counter-narcotics strategy must contribute to the stabilization of Afghanistan and help authorities build a legitimate state and economy," said Paul Barker, Care's country director in Afghanistan.
Karzai himself has already ruled out aerial spraying, a decision the groups strongly agree with. When two unidentified aircraft sprayed crops in southern Afghanistan in November, the Afghan government formally protested to the British and US embassies, which, however, denied that they were involved.
At the same time, neither Kabul nor the groups deny that the drug trade represents a very serious threat to Afghanistan's long-term prospects. Indeed, some analysts say that the drug economy and the corruption it breeds have become so pervasive that the country could soon become a "narco-state".
The key to addressing the problem without causing too much collateral damage, according to the groups, requires a reallocation of the counter-drug money to target the middlemen, major traffickers and their protectors, rather than the small producers. More credit and alternative livelihood programs need to be directed to the farmers, they wrote, and those programs should be closely coordinated with existing provincial and national development plans.
Meanwhile, law enforcement efforts should be focused more on interdiction, the destruction of laboratories, and arresting or dismissing major traffickers and their political protectors, according to the letter, which called on Washington and other donors to commit funds and training to build up the appropriate institutions.
US and allied intelligence collection efforts should place a priority on identifying major traffickers and taking punitive action, even if they turn out to be warlords who have been supported by Washington in the past.
Finally, the groups are calling on the Karzai government to strictly enforce those provisions of its constitution requiring the disclosure of assets by high officials and to extend this requirement to their families and top military commanders. "Those with unexplained assets should be dismissed," the letter stated.
Other signers of the letter included Actionaid Afghanistan, Afghan NGOs Coordination Bureau, the American Friends Service Committee, Catholic Relief Services, Help the Afghan Children, the International Rescue Committee and Mercy Corps.
(Inter Press Service)
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