SAS destroys stockpiles and factories in war on Afghan drug barons

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The Independent Online

The SAS is directing a secret war against Afghanistan's heroin barons along the dangerous border with Pakistan.

The SAS is directing a secret war against Afghanistan's heroin barons along the dangerous border with Pakistan.

Afghan special forces trained by the élite British soldiers have seized hundreds of tons of stockpiled opium and destroyed dozens of heroin factories in the past few months, the first significant blow to Afghanistan's narco-lords three years after Britain took a much criticised "lead role" against the opium trade.

Afghan anti-narcotics teams such as the crack 333 squad, backed by US aircraft, now promise a new offensive against drug dealers this spring in some of the most dangerous and difficult terrain in the country, including the Spin Ghar and Tora Bora mountains where Osama bin Laden made his stand in 2001.

British soldiers are "mentoring" their Afghan counterparts, helping them plan raids and feeding them information from Western intelligence about where the heroin factories and opium warehouses are. SAS soldiers are only occasionally venturing into risky areas, however, and have been forbidden from taking part in raids out of fear of sustaining casualties.

British officials in Kabul refused to discuss details of the secret operations, but expressed satisfaction at the results. During a visit to Kabul last week, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, announced a doubling of anti-drugs aid to $100m (£55m), half of which will go to subsidising alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers.

The strategy of hitting dealers through Afghan forces, backed by Western military power, represents a major shift in thinking. In response to a survey last year showing the biggest area ever under poppy cultivation, Washington hawks were seeking a massive, aerial spraying campaign against the poppy fields, to be carried out by private US contractors. The plan was resisted in Kabul, however, and Western military officers in Afghanistan feared that impoverishing hundreds of thousands of opium farmers could spark new insurgency.

Those who support tackling the problem on the ground argue that the alternative strategy is beginning to show results. "The Afghans have really started to get it together with their anti-narcotics teams," said a source in Kabul. "They are motivated, professional, and starting to have an impact. The Afghans want to take action against the drugs industry - President Hamid Karzai has said that the drugs industry is a national shame."