Britain and US split over defeating Afghan opium trade

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Attempts to eradicate Afghanistan's opium crop have abjectly failed and British soldiers who take part in such operations may face legal action, an international think-tank has said.

Britain is sending a task force of almost 6,000 troops to Afghanistan to fight the resurgent al-Qa'ida and Taliban and also take part in tackling the country's poppy crops. These supply 90 per cent of heroin to this country and the UK is planning to spend £20m a year on eradication.

But at the eve of the London Conference on Afghanistan ­ co-hosted by Tony Blair, the UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, and Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President ­ differences are emerging between Britain and the US.

American officials are pressing for aerial crop-spraying. But aid agencies and human rights groups point out that poppy fields are often adjacent to ones growing vegetables and wheat. British officials are against spraying. But a report by the Senlis Council, the think-tank, showed yesterday that the US administration was advertising for aerial spraying jobs in Afghanistan.

Recent job postings by the US Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs include the position of "Aviation Eradication Ops and Safety Officer" and an "Aviation Maintenance Adviser" for operations in Afghanistan. According to the report, a US government document says "the end game of the CN [Counter Narcotics] aviation programme is the curtailment of the supply ... through aerial and airmobile eradication of drug crops".

The Senlis Council is setting up a fund, and commissioning lawyers to act for farmers whose poppy fields are destroyed.

The British force being sent to Afghanistan will come under a Nato mandate which stipulates that troops deployed should concentrate on peacekeeping and training the Afghan police and army. Nato officials said that does not include opium eradication.

The UN has also warned about the dangers of foreign intervention. Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said the military "should not be involved in eradication. This should be run by the national authority" because crops destroyed could be "replanted in weeks".

Mr Costa said the West had been the author of its own misfortune over heroin. "I see very little progress in the consumption side. We need prevention programmes in schools, testing on roads like breathalysers, and campaigns like anti-smoking campaigns," he said.

British defence sources said last night that British troops would not be playing a direct part in opium eradication, but would be training and guiding Afghan government forces.