Britain faces a war on two fronts in Afghanistan, following the revelation that the province where British troops are deployed has become the biggest source of illicit drugs in the world.
In an annual survey of opium production released yesterday, the UN reported that Helmand province had produced 48 per cent more opium compared to its record-breaking crop last year. Opium production in Afghanistan as a whole will reach a "frighteningly new level" at 8,200 tons, 34 per cent higher than last year, the report said.
British troops sent to back up reconstruction efforts in Helmand have been pinned down by resurgent Taliban fighters, who have a stranglehold over the drugs trade which is funding the resistance.
Although another record opium crop had been expected, the massive jump in the Helmand output reflects the level of insecurity in the province, where the insurgency has deepened in the past year. British commanders have described the conflict as the most intense since the Korean war.
Alongside the fight against al-Qa'ida after the 11 September attacks in 2001, cutting opium production was one of the main justifications for British involvement in military action in Afghanistan. Opium provides the raw material for heroin.
Tony Blair repeatedly referred to the fact that Afghan heroin accounted for an overwhelming proportion of the drug available on British streets and agreed to lead the international coalition's anti-narcotics effort.
But yesterday the Government was accused by its critics of "failing spectacularly". The report by the UN office on drugs and crime said: "An astonishing 50 per cent of the whole Afghan opium crop comes from one single province: Helmand."
Although cultivation of the opium poppy had decreased in parts of Afghanistan, "where anti-government forces reign, poppies flourish".
"With just 2.5 million inhabitants, this relatively rich southern province has become the world's biggest source of illicit drugs, surpassing the output of entire countries such as Colombia (coca), Morocco (cannabis) and Burma (opium) - which have populations up to twenty times larger."
The head of the UN agency, Antonio Maria Costa, said: "No other country in the world has ever had such a large amount of farmland used for illegal activity, beside China 100 years ago," when it was a major opium producer.
He urged Nato to more actively support counter-narcotics operations. "Since drugs are funding insurgency, Afghanistan's military and its allies have a vested interest in destroying heroin labs, closing opium markets and bringing traffickers to justice. Tacit acceptance of opium trafficking is undermining stabilisation efforts."
Britain, which is increasing the number of troops in Helmand to a total 7,700 by the end of the summer, backs greater involvement by Nato in crop eradication, by providing protection and logistical help for the Afghan forces involved in the effort.
Diplomats stressed however that British soldiers would not be directly involved in crop eradication.
Given the dramatic failure of the strategy in curbing the opium poppy cultivation - which was drastically scaled back under the Taliban - future policy is expected to focus more on forced eradication by a specialised Afghan unit. Britain has already announced an additional £22.5m for the Afghan interdiction forces.
It is generally admitted that separate efforts led by the province's governor, Asadullah Wafa, have been disappointing since he took on the job eight months ago.
Government corruption, particularly what Mr Costa calls the Karzai administration's "benign tolerance of corruption" is also blamed for the explosion in the opium crop.
British diplomats rejected suggestions that forced eradication risked damaging the "hearts and minds" campaign among the Afghans. Locals would welcome the broadening of the struggle to target rich farmers who had been able to bribe their way out before.
Last month the all-party Commons Defence Committee issued a critical report on drugs eradication in Afghanistan, warning that uncertainty among Afghans about the role of international forces in poppy eradication could put service personnel at risk.
Reacting to the report, Liam Fox, the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, said: "The British Government has overall responsibility for dealing with poppy production in Afghanistan and is failing spectacularly. There needs to be a redoubling of reconstruction effort at ensuring alternative incomes for Afghan farmers so that poppy eradication does not drive them into the arms of the Taliban. There also needs to be an unequivocal effort by the Afghan government to deal with the corruption which encourages poppy, and ultimately heroin, production."
In a statement, Gordon Brown said: "The international community is united in its desire to prevent Afghanistan once again becoming a failed state." He said progress would be measured "across a wide range of activity" but the Foreign Office agreed the figures for Helmand were "particularly disappointing".
Crop spraying: a controversial solution
When William Wood, America's ambassador to Colombia, was named envoy to Afghanistan a few months ago, there was concern he would bring with him the US crop eradication technique of choice.
Discussing possible new strategies for coping with the record increase in opium production in Afghanistan with a New York Times reporter this week, Mr Wood acknowledged spraying poppy crops with herbicide was "a possibility".
The government of President Hamid Karzai has rejected crop spraying in the past, as do the British who have the unenviable responsibility for dealing with poppy production in the troubled Helmand province.
Such tactics could damage the health of the local population in areas of open irrigation channels, and contaminate the legal crops which are interspersed in Helmand with the illicit opium poppy. There are also fears crop spraying could drive local farmers into the arms of the Taliban and enable the Taliban to accuse the "occupying forces" of poisoning the Afghan people.
The United States has budgeted $449m (£223m) to tackle opium production in Afghanistan this year alone. The British are spending $60m on promoting legal crops such as mint, wheat, chillies and cotton. But Afghan farmers have yet to be persuaded it is worthwhile financially to give up a lucrative illicit livelihood in favour of a legitimate crop.
The Senlis Council yesterday reiterated its call for a "Poppy for medicine" programme which would would allow farming communities to produce morphine locally, providingrural communities with economic opportunities. But the US, Brit-ish and Afghan governments remain opposed to any legalisation of opium in Afghanistan, which has a million addicts.
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