UK's £100m assault on Afghan heroin trade

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The Independent Online

Britain is funding a £100m campaign in an effort to combat the drugs explosion in Afghanistan that is fuelling the violence and anarchy in the country.

Britain is funding a £100m campaign in an effort to combat the drugs explosion in Afghanistan that is fuelling the violence and anarchy in the country.

Pressure from the Government has led to changes in the rules of engagement for international forces, allowing them greater scope to seize heroin consignments and raid drug factories. At the same time, Britain is demanding "high-profile" arrests of warlords and members of the administration of President Hamid Karzai who are involved in the trade.

Tony Blair, stung by accusations of reneging on his promise to stand by the Afghan people after the fall of the Taliban regime, has demanded action to prevent further un- ravelling of the situation, ministers told The Independent on Sunday. Britain has increased its aid to Afghanistan from £200m to £500m over five years. And, it is believed, British troops originally earmarked for Iraq will be deployed to the country in time for elections scheduled for September.

Seventy-five per cent of the world's production of heroin is in Afghanistan, and the country also accounts for at least 95 per cent of supplies coming into Britain. The area of cultivation has grown from around 4,000 acres in 2001 to more than 150,000 acres - a massive 235 square miles - in 2003. The revenues from the narcotics have been used by the warlords, including allies of Mr Karzai, to purchase weapons for their private armies.

The next set of figures is expected to be even worse. According to a survey by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, 69 per cent of last year's poppy farmers stated that they intended to increase their production, and even 43 per cent of those farmers not growing the narcotic said they will start doing so because the rewards are so great.

Ministers insist that the crop after the next one will show a marked decrease. The Foreign Office is sending drug teams to Afghanistan at the end of the year, and £70m will be spent on anti-drugs measures. The Department for International Development (DFID) has allocated another £20m to provide alternative livelihood for farmers whose poppy crops are destroyed.

Nato allies are also being pressed to send additional troops, with particular focus on the French and the Germans, who refused to send forces to Iraq, and the Spanish who have pulled out their contingent. An Afghan task force including Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell, Gareth Thomas, a minister at the DFID, the Home Office and Customs & Excise, has been set up with the specific aim of addressing the security situation.

"What we are putting in place should start showing results in 13 months' time. If that does not happen then, I accept, it can be seen as failure", Mr Rammell said. "Unfortunately the increase in cultivation we have seen was expected in a country going through transition such as Afghanistan. But it's simply not true that we have been ignoring the matter. The Prime Minister has personally shown concern about this, and he is involved with our campaign.

"We would also like to see some high-profile arrests to show that these people cannot act with impunity."

Mr Thomas said: "No one is doubting that there are huge problems. But we are showing our commitment to face them. Afghanistan is among the top-priority countries for DFID."