Karzai promises to rid his country of drug trade

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The Independent Online

Hamid Karzai, the new leader of Afghanistan, pledged to rid his country of drug trafficking yesterday but said it would be a very difficult task without investment in its devastated agricultural economy.

In a television interview, he estimated the number of "hard-core" al-Qa'ida and Taliban fighters being sought in Afghanistan at no more than 35. When the war was launched after the 11 September attacks on the United States, there were thought to be tens of thousands of Taliban and al-Qa'ida fighters in the country. Mr Karzai also said he would visit the United States "in the coming month or two."

US officials accused the Taliban that preceded Mr Karzai's six-month interim administration last week of being a "drug-trafficking government" and said Washington hoped to get rid of opium stockpiles in Afghanistan and stop farmers from planting more poppies.

Until last year, Afghanistan was the world's main producer of poppies, which are turned into opium and further refined into heroin. Two years ago, the Taliban ordered a partial ban on poppy production and last year outlawed it altogether. But American officials said that, although the Taliban had banned growing poppies, it was still stockpiling opium.

Interviewed on NBC's Meet the Press, Mr Karzai was asked if his government would be able to eliminate poppy production and prevent narcotics trafficking.

"Yes, we are very determined to stop this by whatever means," he said. But he stressed that "we must also try to return to the Afghan people what is theirs. That's a good life, a good agriculture base and economic opportunity.

"Without that kind of medium, it will be hard to stop the production of poppy or to prevent smuggling or the trafficking of narcotics."

He added that most Afghans lived on an income of less than one dollar a day.