Pubdate: Sun, 31 Dec 2006
Source: Sunday Times (UK)
Copyright: 2006 Times Newspapers Ltd.
Author: Michael Smith


A CAMPAIGN of enforced crop-spraying to destroy the opium poppy fields
will get under way in southern Afghanistan in the next few weeks,
despite fears that it will undermine attempts to win the battle for
hearts and minds with the Taliban.

British defence and diplomatic sources claim the campaign is the
result of "US political interference" and is throwing Nato plans into
turmoil. Coupled with the imminent replacement of the British general
commanding Nato troops with an American, the sources predict a
breakdown in security.

The spraying is likely to damage legitimate crops that farmers grow to
feed their families. It could increase support for the Taliban at a
time when Nato and the Afghan government are trying hard to persuade
the population that they should back international reconstruction efforts.

General David Richards, the Nato commander who will be replaced at the
end of February by a US general, has said that the period before a
widely expected Taliban spring offensive is vital to win over Afghan
public opinion.

American determination to deal with the drugs issue is putting that
effort at serious risk, the sources claimed.

The Taliban are paid by poppy farmers to protect their crops and would
be ideally placed to capitalise on the widespread anger among farmers
that is likely if drugs eradication is not handled carefully.

"I think it is fair to say that we are at a turning point," a British
source said. "We need to get the people on side. Eradication has to
take place. But doing it the wrong way, as some Americans seem
determined to do, will only cause havoc."

The push for enforced spraying, opposed by both the British and the
former Helmand governor, Engineer Daud, was a key reason for his
removal this month, the sources said.

The US Congress is angered that drugs production has increased by 49%
to 6,700 tonnes this year - more than 92% of the world's supply - and
there have been a spate of US media reports highlighting the
trafficking of Afghan heroin to America.

The differences between the UK, which has taken the lead in efforts to
curb the poppy crop, and influential US politicians have been apparent
for some time.

One congressional inquiry into the issue was entitled "Are the British
Counter-narcotics Efforts Going Wobbly?", an allusion to Margaret
Thatcher's entreaty to President George Bush Sr not to "go wobbly"
ahead of the 1991 Gulf war.

The disagreement came into the open when British officials openly
expressed their concern over the removal of Daud, who was sceptical of
the wisdom of enforced eradication because so many of the key players
in Helmand are heavily involved in the poppy industry.

He believed that some of these would be bound to escape while farmers
would make an easy target. Ordinary people would therefore see the
whole reconstruction process as corrupt and would not buy into it.

Nevertheless, Daud recognised there was a need to do something, so he
backed targeted eradication very strongly, telling tribal elders that
it must go ahead. He and the British both wanted to see the drugs
barons moved against first so that the small farmer would see it was a
genuine enforcement of the law.

While the Americans believed widespread spraying to be the only
solution, Daud and the British wanted to see the crops ploughed up.
The Americans do not believe this will be as effective and spraying
will now start next month.

The reasons for Daud's removal were complex. The Americans on the
ground in Afghanistan were primarily anxious to get rid of his deputy,
who was one of the leading drugs barons. In the intricate political
realities of Afghanistan, the two had to go together.

Daud's predecessor was Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, who is one of the
province' s main drugs growers and was sacked at British insistence
along with his police chief, another drugs baron.
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