Two British soldiers killed as Afghan poppy crop booms

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The Independent Online

Two more British soldiers have died in Afghanistan, as Western officials in the country have admitted that the country is to produce its largest ever poppy harvest.

The deaths, the fourth and fifth in three weeks, come as Western military commanders and counter-narcotics officials appear increasingly at odds over how to approach the drugs problem in the south of the country. Military officers are fearful the $1bn (£540m) a year campaign to eradicate the drug is helping pull in recruits for the Taliban.

"The trends indicate that the area of cultivation will be considerably higher than in 2004," said a representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which will publish its annual report of the Afghan opium harvest next month.

In 2004, about 130,000 hectares of opium poppy was cultivated, which has been the largest so far, despite poor growing conditions that year. Better conditions across the country this year will help produce the largest tonnage of opium ever. But Afghanistan is already responsible for about 87 per cent of the world's opium and more than 90 per cent of the heroin consumed in Britain.

Hamid Karzai, the President, and his government announced last year a

jihad on poppy production, backed by a near-$1bn campaign, led by the UK. It led to a fall by 21 per cent drop in the area under cultivation. Those gains have now been wiped out.

One Western official, who declined to be named, predicted a considerable rise, but not as extreme as that predicted by the UNODC. "The evidence collected so far indicates that the harvest will be significantly up on 2005 and perhaps around the 130,000hectare mark."

About one-third of this year's harvest has come from Helmand, where 3,300 British troops are heavily engaged against Taliban guerrillas. British troops have fought firefights with them almost every day for the past week in the north of the province.

Some military commanders argue that eradication operations in the south should be suspended for a year or more. "We may have to say to the farmer we are not yet ready to provide an alternative livelihood," a Nato officer told The Independent. "There may have to be a period of grace where we say that by a certain time frame there can be no more poppy cultivation and at that point we will eradicate your poppy."

The officer said that such an approach would give Western forces the "moral high ground" against the Taliban's ongoing campaign to present itself as the defender of poppy farmers, a campaign which has had considerable effect in Helmand this year.

Another Western official said that "full and frank" exchanges were ongoing between military commanders and counter-narcotics officials over the issue of eradication. Counter-narcotics officials contend that a suspension of eradication, and removal of any punitive measures would only produce a further surge in poppy production. They argue this would help to fund elements with a vested interest in maintaining the current instability; instability that has killed more than 1,600 people in the first six months of this year.

The drugs economy is valued at $2.7bn, equivalent to more than 50 per cent of Afghanistan's legal economy. By contrast the government managed to generate legal revenues, outside of foreign aid, of only $330m last year. With most government officials on salaries of about $50 a month and a cost of living that is artificially inflated largely by the drugs economy, corruption is endemic.

Farmers in the south claim that in the absence of any other economic activity, poppy cultivation and high wages paid by the Taliban to fight for them offer the only sources of income to huge numbers of unemployed young men. Poppy cultivation, they say, is the only means of wealth creation without capital.

"If you cultivate poppy the smugglers pay you in advance, so you don't need any money to buy the seed or fertiliser," Haji Mohammad Sarwar, 45, an elder in the Punjwai district of Kandhar province, told The Independent. "You can make enough to buy some land. Five jiribs [1 hectare] of poppy is $5,000 profit even after the costs of labour and fertilizer."

Shamsuddin Tanwir, of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission in Kandahar, said: "In Taliban-held areas everyone cultivates poppy. They do not get any problems so they prefer Taliban."

Amid the general gloom, Western officials stress the long-term nature of the war on drugs and the several positive signs amongst this year's early findings. In the east of the country, where a 96 per cent drop in poppy cultivation was recorded last year, officials feared a large resurgence after unrealistic expectations of Western aid on the part of poppy farmers were not met. That resurgence was much smaller than feared and Nangahar province remains largely drug free.

Western officials also point to improvements in governance. Reforms of the police force have seen police chiefs, known to be capable and not corrupt, installed in a number of provinces in the south, including Helmand.

The new police chief in Helmand replaces a man who was named in leaked US intelligence documents as running heroin shipments in police vehicles. But there are still widespread claims that figures high in the government control the drugs trade, including allegations against President Karzai's brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, who is head of the provincial council for Kandahar province.

"There is no evidence for this claim," he told The Independent. "When people want to attack the President they say these things about me. It is like the spice on a dish." In Washington there is increasing pressure for a more radical approach to the drugs problem with the threat of aerial eradication being held up as the ultimate sanction if the softer methods favoured by the British and Afghan governments don't work.

Western sources have said that US counter-narcotics teams are exploring the possibility of using a form of Agent Orange, a defoliant that become notorious for turning large parts of south Vietnam into a lunar landscape during the Vietnam War. One Western official said: "Aerial spraying will definitely not be used as part of the poppy eradication for 2007, period. But if a decrease in poppy cultivation is not achieved soon it is something that will increasingly be brought to the front for consideration."

The official stressed that any aerial spraying would only be undertaken with Afghan consent.

The United Nations remains completely opposed to such a move. "We really hope that all relevant parties and stakeholders will see that aerial spraying will contribute to the conflict and will play into the hands of the insurgents, and based on this insight will not start this measure at all," said a representative of UNODC.

Farmers from Kakhrez, near the town of Musa Qala in north Helmand, told The Independent this month that helicopters dropped an unknown substance during April on to their fields:

"It was in Boom village," said Lal Mohammed. "The helicopters were heard overhead in the night. A white powder was on the plants in the morning. There were red and yellow spots on the trees. Eight jiribs of poppy (1.6 hectares) were affected. I saw the plants, they grew very small, they didn't bloom and they dried out." Western Counter-Narcotics officials denied the claim. Similar claims were made in Jalalabad in December 2004. They were never substantiated.

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