Unholy alliance with the Taliban that sustains a nation's drugs trade

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The Independent Online

More than a third of this year's record poppy harvest was produced in just one province, Helmand, in which 4,400 British troops have been engaged in intense clashes with the Taliban since June.

Here the insurgency and the drugs barons appear to have made an unholy alliance. When The Independent visited the drugs heartlands of north Helmand in May, local poppy farmers explained that the Taliban had promised to protect their poppy fields, whilst taking a tax on the opium produced.

Senior Nato officers have warned that millionaire drug smugglers are also funding the insurgents and have expressed concern that the threat to the poppy economy in the south is pushing the local populace into the camp of the Taliban. Some military figures have suggested an amnesty on poppy eradication for a year or more.

In neighbouring Kandahar local people accused Western nations of broken promises and complained bitterly that poppy cultivation and fighting for the Taliban were the only sources of employment in the economically devastated south.

"I was in a meeting where the foreigners promised $28m (£15m) to Kandahar if people stopped cultivating poppy," said one farmer in the town of Punjwai. "But they haven't even given so much as one boiled sweet."

In fact, in 2005, just short of $1bn was thrown at the opium problem. Nearly the same amount has been spent this year.

Western officials say that a note of optimism has been a sustained reduction in poppy in Nangahar province, one of the country's previous major drug production centres. But they admit to deep frustration in the face of massive government corruption and collusion on the part of many police and officials in the drugs trade.

Several members of the Afghan parliament are widely reported to be key figures in the drugs trade. An apparent US army intelligence document which was discovered on a computer memory stick at an Afghan bazaar earlier this year named a number of government ministers it alleged were complicit in the drugs trade, including the Interior Minister for Counter Narcotics. He denies the charge. Despite international efforts to reform the country's judicial system, no major drugs figures have yet been arrested.

In an interview with Fortune magazine last month, the Afghan President Hamid Karzai admitted that there were "a lot of people" in his administration who profit from the drugs trade. The value of the Afghan narco-economy was put at $2.7 bn, or 52 per cent of Afghan GDP, last year.