Pubdate: Fri, 02 Apr 2004
Source: Daily Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: 2004 Telegraph Group Limited
Authors: David Rennie, in Washington and Anton La Guardia, Diplomatic Editor
Bookmark: (Heroin)


America's love affair with Tony Blair was thrown into crisis yesterday when 
a US official publicly accused Britain of failing to take action to 
eradicate a bumper crop of Afghan opium poppies.

The Bush administration took the highly unusual step of sending a senior 
official to Congress to chastise Britain, its closest ally in the war on 
terrorism, for dragging its feet in the fight against drugs.

Robert Charles, the assistant secretary of state for international 
narcotics and law enforcement, said Britain was being too squeamish about 
eradicating poppy fields before Afghan farmers had found an alternative 
source of crops and income.

"Our point of disagreement, and I put it very directly," said Mr Charles, 
"is that we believe that if there is a heroin poppy that needs to be 
eradicated, we shouldn't be picking and choosing, we shouldn't be delaying, 
waiting for an alternative revenue stream to become available."

He said: "Our priority should not be some kind of misplaced sympathy for 
someone who will have to do a little bit more work [to grow other, 
less-lucrative crops, such as wheat or barley]."

His onslaught came during an appearance before a Republican-chaired hearing 
of the House narcotics sub-committee entitled: "Afghanistan: are British 
counter-narcotics efforts going wobbly?"

This was a pointed reference to Margaret Thatcher's warning to George Bush 
Sr not to "go wobbly" in the run-up to the 1991 Kuwait war.

Britain has been designated by the G8 group of leading industrialised 
states to lead the international effort to staunch the flow of drugs from 
Afghanistan, the world's biggest heroin producer.

One reason for America's alarm is the evidence of a surge in the 2004 poppy 
crop, which Mr Charles said may double last year's production.

"We may well be looking at well over 120,000 hectares of poppy cultivation 
this year," he said. "That would constitute a world record crop, empowering 
traffickers and the terrorists they feed, raising the stakes for, and the 
vulnerability of, Afghan democracy, and raising the supply of heroin on the 
world market."

But he said there was "still a window open for Britain to become more 
aggressive" before the harvest begins later this month in the south and 
moves north.

The British embassy declined an invitation to address the hearing. The 
Government responded quickly but cautiously last night, saying it was 
determined to stamp out drugs production.

Bill Rammell, the Foreign Office minister, said: "We are making real 
progress on tackling Afghan drugs. Much has been achieved, but there are no 
short cuts to success."

British officials say they have agreed a 10-year plan with the Afghan 
government to rid the country of poppy cultivation, but expected a 
"short-term increase" after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, which had 
restricted production. The Government has earmarked UKP70 million for the 
counter-narcotics effort in the coming three years.

Mr Charles praised British efforts to destroy heroin laboratories and 
shipments. But insisted that Britain had to do a lot more to uproot poppy 
crops, particularly in the southern Pathan belt, where British officials 
are working with provincial governors.

The dispute is tangled in Afghanistan's complex tribal politics. In the 
American view, Britain is reluctant to stir up more trouble in the restive 
Pathan south, from where the Taliban draws its support.

But unless poppies in the south are eradicated, America fears that any 
attempt to destroy them farther north could provoke a backlash from Tajiks, 
who would complain that the Pathans were being treated more leniently.

Mr Charles said that unless the drugs trade was brought under control 
quickly it might become unstoppable, with "the institutionalisation of 
Colombia-like cartels".

It is almost unheard of for the Bush administration to rebuke Britain in 
public. US officials will generally tie themselves in knots rather than 
criticise Washington's close ally and a Labour leader revered in America.
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