Bid to wipe out Afghan opium failed, says UN

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The Independent Online

The head of the UN's anti-narcotics unit has called on Nato forces to crack down on heroin production in Afghanistan – a policy which contradicts proposals by the Brown government.

Gordon Brown will propose paying farmers more than they earn from their poppy harvests in return for ceasing to grow the crop when he makes a statement to the Commons in the next few weeks on his strategy for winning over Afghans and curbing the influence of the Taliban.

Thus far the British campaign to destroy poppy production has been an abject failure, according to the annual report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The biggest growth area is in Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, where British forces are fighting daily battles.

British and allied forces are looking at ways of targeting the heroin dealers by destroying drug factories inside Afghanistan. However, British ministers are keen to avoid alienating the farmers who are making a living out of the poppy crop.

That has caused tensions with the US administration, which has been pressing Britain to support aerial spraying to destroy the crop. But aerial spraying is opposed by Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai and a senior Downing Street official made it clear yesterday that Mr Brown will call for a more sympathetic approach to the farmers. "We have to work closely with the communities involved," he said.

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UNODC, gave new figures showing Afghanistan's export of drugs to the West was fuelling the insurgency in Afghanistan. Releasing the final draft of its 2007 Afghan opium survey, the UNODC chief said poppy growth increased 17 per cent to 193,000 hectares and the growth in heroin production leapt a third to 8,200 tonnes.

The report shows that Afghanistan now accounts for 93 per cent of world opium production and is the biggest narcotics producer since 19th-century China. Helmand produces about half of the national output of heroin. Farmers gained around $1bn (£500m) from the total income from the heroin trade, estimated at $4bn, while district officials took a percentage through a levy on the crops. The rest was shared among insurgents, warlords and drugs traffickers, it said.

The wholesale price of a gram of heroin grew with every border crossed, it noted, rising from $2.50 in Afghanistan itself to $3.50 in Pakistan and Iran, $8 in Turkey, $22 in Germany, $30 in Britain and $33 in Russia.

"The potential windfall for criminals, insurgents and terrorists is staggering and runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars," Mr Costa said.

"Since drugs are funding the insurgency, Nato has a self-interest in supporting Afghan forces in destroying drugs labs, markets and convoys. Destroy the drug trade and you cut off the Taliban's main funding source."

Lord Malloch-Brown, the Foreign Office minister, told peers recently that the Department for International Development was preparing plans to provide long-term payments to farmers for stopping poppy production and growing alternative crops.

However, a British charity, the Senlis Council, is winning support from MPs for an alternative plan to buy up the annual poppy harvest for morphine, which is in short supply.