US defies protests to poison Afghan poppies

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The US is preparing to destroy Afghanistan's opium poppy crop from the air next spring, before it can be harvested, brushing aside objections from aid agencies.

The US is preparing to destroy Afghanistan's opium poppy crop from the air next spring, before it can be harvested, brushing aside objections from aid agencies.

The operation, modelled on controversial efforts to wipe out cocaine-growing in Colombia, reflects growing concern in Washington that the opium trade is financing al-Qa'ida-linked terrorist groups and posing a grave threat to the region's stability. Hundreds of private security contractors and pilots will be hired to spray herbicides from low-flying aircraft.

Senior American officials barely disguise their impatience with British-led efforts at eradication, which have failed to stop a massive increase in Afghan poppy-growing. An annual UN report out next week will show a 64 per cent increase in the area planted over the past year.

"It's time the stick was wielded and farmers understood there is a risk if they plant opium," said a Western official in Kabul. "Some of them will have a rough time, but there simply has to be enough eradication that farmers see risk attached to this business."

Eradication missions are likely to begin in February or March in the southern province of Helmand, although it has not yet been decided whether to begin with an experiment in one area or launch the operation across the country. An American-led campaign targeting drug barons is also expected to start in the next few weeks, with US officials promising to extradite any who can be linked to heroin smuggled into America.

The Pentagon has over-ridden objections from USAid, the official American aid organisation, as well as Britain's Department for International Development.

US troops have expressed fears of being dragged into a drugs war, in which Britain's 1,700 soldiers in Afghanistan could also be embroiled. Britain is also expected to have a major intelligence role in anti-narcotics operations.

A Colombia-style operation in Afghanistan could spark rural rebellions, increase support for the Taliban's insurgency and perhaps cause damage to the environment and health, according to critics. They fear that destroying a crop on which an estimated two million farmers and their families now depend for their livelihoods could impoverish whole provinces without stopping the massive flow of heroin to Europe.

The herbicide glyphosate, used in Colombia, is reported to have caused severe skin rashes and other illnesses. If it is accidentally sprayed over legitimate crops, innocent farmers could suffer, and local famines might result.

Critics complain that little is being done to warn farmers that their crops will be destroyed, even though it could make them decide against planting poppies this month. "If this is to be effective they should be showing farmers that they are really serious," one agriculture expert said. "The best way to combat poppy cultivation is to dissuade farmers from growing it in the first place.

"The other step is disrupting the smuggling networks and the seven or eight big figures who control the opium smuggling business. Afghans might have more faith in anti-narcotics measures if pressure was put on the big fish."

Many analysts believe Plan Colombia, the US-funded war against the cocaine trade, has proved ineffective. Much of the trade has relocated to neighbouring countries, and the price of cocaine in America has remained the same.

The five-year, $3.3bn campaign provides training, equipment and intelligence in return for the extradition of 120 alleged drug dealers to the US. In Afghanistan, Britain has helped to train counter-narcotics forces, including the much-praised Force 333, which has already destroyed heroin laboratories.