The enormity of the problems in tackling Afghanistan's massive opium crop has become apparent as the first wave of British troops are deployed in one of the most dangerous parts of the country.
British Government ministers had repeatedly declared that one of the primary tasks of the 5,700- strong expeditionary force was to help end Afghan heroin production, which supplies 90 per cent of the narcotic in Britain. But the commander of the British forces in southern Iraq insisted yesterday that his troops would play no part in destroying poppy fields, while senior British civil servants cautioned that ending cultivation may take years.
"After all, it took 30 years to end opium production in Thailand under much more benign circumstances," said Nick Kay, the United Kingdom's regional co-ordinator for southern Afghanistan. "Considering the problems in Afghanistan one can see it will not be an easy process."
Col Gordon Messenger of the Royal Marines said that British troops deploying to Helmand, the biggest centre of heroin production in the biggest heroin-producing country in the world, would not be involved in a process being considered by President Hamid Karzai's government of eradicating poppies.
"There will be absolutely no maroon berets [of the marines] with scythes in a poppy field," he said.
British forces will not even directly stop vehicles suspected of smuggling the drug. The main role of the British forces will be to enable the Afghan police and army to establish control over areas which have remained outside their reach and allowed a resurgent Taliban and drug lords to gain ascendancy, said Col Messenger.
Even if the policy were changed to allow British involvement in poppy eradication, the troops would not be in a position to take part in such programmes, said Col Messenger, who won a DSO in the 1990-91 Iraq war.
Helmand, the biggest and the most lawless province in Afghanistan, accounts for 25 per cent of the opium produced nationally. It is the most important conduit for trafficking the drug to the West through Iran and to the rest of Asia through Pakistan.
According to British and Iraqi officials, the size of the crop is due to double next year, negating any gain made elsewhere in Afghanistan.
However, the yield from heroin has risen almost 1,000 per cent from seven Afghanis (around 8p) a kilo to 300 Afghanis (£3.44) in just two years.
Amir Mohammed, the district governor of Chemtal, west Mazar-I-Sharif, in northern Afghanistan , said: "We are trying to stop the problem, but people are poor and they are, of course, tempted by so much money."
The United Kingdom is giving aid of £20m a year in efforts to stop opium cultivation. However, farmers will not get monetary compensation matching the amount they will lose if they agree to abandon poppy cultivation.
Mr Kay said that a whole series of measures being implemented, including the establishment of law and order, and job opportunities, would eventually lead to a fall in opium production.
British officials are keen not to repeat the "mistakes" made in Iraq. "There has been criticism that in Iraq the military was deployed and aid did not follow," said Wendy Phillips, the Department for International Development's development adviser. "We are being very careful not to do this here. Here the British troops are working in full co-ordination with other agencies. This is not just a military matter."
But military matters are concentrating the minds of British commanders as a massive build-up takes place in southern Afghanistan. Lt-Col Henry Worsley, a senior British officer in Helmand, said: "Inevitably there will be opposition because there are more soldiers here now. If I were a Taliban commander I would want to have a go. But we will have quite a potent force and they will only get away with it once."
The RAF is already involved in attrition ,with Harrier jets based in Kandahar repeatedly taking part in raids. Last Sunday they carried out strikes with CRV7 rockets in the province of Oruzgan.
But the Taliban and their al-Qa'ida allies are lethally active in Helmand, with an attempted suicide bombing targeting the province's governor, teachers being beheaded for providing education for girls, and the murder of aid workers, including the shooting of one while he was praying at a mosque.
Engineer Mohammed Daoud, the governor of Helmand, stresses that the revenue from opium is fuelling the insurgency. " You cannot separate instablity and drugs in this province," he said. "The smugglers and drug dealers have very close connections with the Taliban and both support each other."
It will be interesting to see, say Afghan officials, how the British forces will fight this insurgency while refusing to get drawn into opium eradication.
* A bomb exploded near a Nato peace-keeping convoy in northern Afghanistan yesterday, killing one Afghan civilian and wounding 12 people, including a German peacekeeper.Reuse content