Source: The Sunday Telegraph
Date: 18 November 2001

Britain and US plan to stop heroin
trade by buying Afghan opium crop

By Francis Elliott, Deputy Political Editor

BRITAIN and America are to devote tens of millions of pounds to an attempt to end Afghanistan's notorious heroin trade.

One option being considered is to buy this year's entire opium harvest at black market prices - on the condition that farmers then plough up their poppy fields and sow a different crop.

The move to tackle the menace of heroin came as disturbing new evidence emerged that warlords of the Northern Alliance are conniving in the renewed planting of poppy fields under the cover of war.

United Nations drug monitors say the weakening Taliban grip over drug-producing areas of Afghanistan has allowed farmers to exploit the last weeks of the sowing season.

Kemal Kurspahic, a spokesman for the Vienna-based UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNDCCP), said: "The sowing season is October and early November. Many farmers are now free of Taliban control and our staff in Pakistan have received reports that some are planting. We will only know in February how many poppy fields there are when they begin to grow."

Although the United States and Britain had accused the Taliban of relaxing its ban on poppy farming, the UN says farmers are acting out of desperation and the absence of anyone to enforce the proscription of the trade. It also believes that the bulk of the drug is being produced in alliance strongholds.

One, Badakhshan, was responsible for 83 per cent of the crop produced last year, earning up to £30 million for the producers. The total for this year is expected to be still higher as farmers, lured by high prices, have for the first time grown a second crop.

A return to the record levels of opium produced before the ban imposed by the Taliban would be a major embarrassment to George W Bush and Tony Blair, who have repeatedly cited the regime's involvement in the drugs trade as a justification for military action.

Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, will next week announce British grants to help Afghanistan's northern neighbours to tackle heroin smuggling from Afghanistan.

The US and Britain, however, face a dilemma over what to do about thousands of acres under cultivation mostly in areas controlled by the coalition's Afghan allies.

Against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis and delicate talks to establish a "broad-based" administration, the destruction of poppy fields by American or British troops is considered politically impossible.

The revival of a plan for Western governments to buy and then destroy Afghan opium was first mooted by Keith Hellawell, Mr Blair's former anti-drugs co-ordinator. "We are well aware of the dangers. Nothing is being ruled out," said an official.

However, with farmers being paid up to £215 a kilogram last year, experts concede that eradication will be extremely difficult, even if the new administration in Kabul co-operates - something of which the UN is far from certain.

Hamid Ghodse, the head of the International Narcotics Control Board, called for an "unreserved and unequivocal" commitment from the alliance to reduce opium production in areas it controlled last week.

Mr Ghodse made his remarks after a meeting in Vienna of countries that fund the UN's anti-narcotics programme. At the meeting, which included British officials, it was agreed to prepare a "long term action plan for the post-conflict period in Afghanistan to preclude the resumption of poppy cultivation".

The UN drug control body, which carries out annual surveys of poppy production in Afghanistan, believes that the price of opium in the country's bazaars is beginning to rise again after a sharp drop following the events of September 11, which suggests that traders are replenishing stocks.

Mr Kurspahic said: "Immediately after September 11 the price fell from $700 [£480] a kilo to $190 and then to $90. We believe that reflected the desire to turn their assets into cash quickly. We have some sense now that prices are beginning to go back up again."

The UNDCCP is calling for international donors to fund alternative development projects to help to divert opium farmers to other crops. Farmers are being offered cash and other incentives to switch to other crops under the schemes.

Mr Blair indicated that Britain will contribute to the programme during a Commons debate on Wednesday. He said: "What we shall do in helping with the reconstruction of Afghanistan is to make it clear that we want Afghanistan to develop farming of proper agricultural produce, not produce for the drugs trade."

Production of raw opium fell by 94 per cent after it was outlawed by the Taliban. According to the annual UN survey, just 185 tons were produced this year, compared with 3,276 the year before.

UN drug monitors, however, carried out an additional mission to the alliance province of Badakhshan in September because of increasing concerns about an expansion in poppy growing in the area.

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