UK Fears Record Afghan Heroin Output

Despite 3,300 British troops deployed to the Helmand, Afghanistan, the province is on track to produce a record heroin crop. There are numerous reasons for the inability of British soldiers to control the trade. The UK government accused the Afghan minister in charge of counter-narcotics of having ties to smuggling. While the UK has not yet provided concrete proof, the allegation has strained cooperation. The drug trade is also causing tension between the UK and its allies. The US is in a hurry to eradicate the poppy crops by spraying pesticide from planes. But both the British and Afghans oppose such measures, warning that the tactics will put farmers out of business and drive them to supporting the Taliban insurgency. The UK strategy focuses on providing support on security and development – but until the governments find a lucrative replacement crop, the farmers will continue to grow poppies. – YaleGlobal

UK Fears Record Afghan Heroin Output

Declan Walsh
Tuesday, June 13, 2006

The Afghanistan province being patrolled by British troops will produce at least one third of the world's heroin this year, according to drug experts who are forecasting a harvest that is both a record for the country and embarrassing for the western funded war on narcotics.

British officials are bracing themselves for the result of an annual UN poppy survey due later this summer. Early indications show an increase on Helmand's 1999 record of 45,000 hectares (112,500 acres) and a near-doubling of last year's crop.

"It's going to be massive," said one British drugs official. "My guess is it's going to be the biggest ever." UN, American and Afghan officials agreed.

"It could be over 50,000 hectares, or over 50% of the total [Aghan] crop," said General Muhammad Daud, the deputy interior minister for counter-narcotics. Helmand's bumper harvest highlights the dramatic failure of western counter-narcotics efforts that have cost at least $2bn (about £1.09bn) since 2001. It could undo progress made last year, when poppy cultivation dropped 21% after President Hamid Karzai's call for a "jihad" on drugs. And it spells particularly bad news for Britain, which is leading the anti-narcotics campaign and has deployed 3,300 soldiers to the large and lawless province.

As Afghanistan accounts for almost 90% of the world's heroin supply, that would mean Helmand supplies about one-third. Drug experts say the province is as central to Afghanistan's illegal economy as California is to America's legal one.

"If you took Helmand out of the picture, Afghanistan would fall from the world's top poppy grower to second or third place," said one US official. British and American officials cannot resort to the tactics of the Taliban, which slashed poppy cultivation to 8,000 hectares in 2001 by threatening to shoot farmers. But western efforts using less violent methods, such as encouraging farmers to grow legal crops, have proved fruitless.

The smuggling kingpins who control the £1.5bn trade have become rich, powerful and apparently untouchable. Although several hundred low-level couriers have been arrested, not one "big fish" has been tried in Afghanistan - a critical failing according to analysts. "Until Karzai arrests and jails one big dealer, people will not believe the central government is behind this drive," said a former American anti-narcotics contractor.

The most damaging allegations swirl around the minister charged with counter-narcotics, Gen Daud. Several western officials allege Gen Daud, a former Tajik warlord, has historical and family links to smuggling. Gen Daud denies the allegations as "politicking" and blames the British embassy for trying to slur his reputation.

"It is very shameful for a big country with such a good reputation to make allegations like this. They should first investigate, and if they have any proof bring it forward," he said at his office.

As proof of his modest wealth, Gen Daud said the government paid his rent, his children walked to school and one of his brothers worked as a taxi driver in Saudi Arabia.

Sour relations with the drugs minister are not the only problem facing British officials in tackling this year's bumper crop. American congressmen are ratcheting up pressure to start poppy eradication using pesticide-spraying planes, a controversial tactic. Aerial spraying has been used extensively against coca plantations in Colombia but is trenchantly opposed by British and Afghans officials, who say it would be disastrous in Afghanistan. "It could drive farmers into the hands of the insurgents," said one.

But an American official predicted that without a dramatic drop in next year's crop, spraying could lead to a UK-US rift by 2008. "Spraying will continue to be a cloud on the horizon and it will get darker," he said.

In Helmand British commanders insists the 3,300 soldiers will avoid tackling drugs in favour of providing security and development funds. "We have to put the things in place that will make it no longer necessary to grow poppy," said a senior officer.

But drug experts say it will be impossible to avoid the drugs war. Britain's main enemy, the Taliban, has developed close links to drug smugglers, sometimes providing them with weapons and vehicles. On Sunday a British soldier, named as Captain Jim Philippson, became the first combat fatality in Helmand after a battle with suspected Taliban forces.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006