Pubdate: Tue, 09 Oct 2007
Source: San Jose Mercury News (CA)
Copyright: 2007 The New York Times Company
Authors: Kirk Semple and Tim Golden, New York Times
Bookmark: (Environmental Issues)
Bookmark: (Poppy)


KABUL, Afghanistan - After the biggest opium harvest in Afghanistan's 
history, U.S. officials have renewed efforts to persuade the Afghan 
government to begin spraying herbicide on opium poppies, and they 
have found some supporters within President Hamid Karzai's 
administration, officials of both countries said.

Since early this year, Karzai has repeatedly declared his opposition 
to spraying the poppy fields, whether by crop-dusting airplanes or by 
eradication teams on the ground.

But Afghan officials said that the Karzai administration was now 
re-evaluating that stance. Some proponents within the government are 
pushing a trial program of ground spraying that could begin before 
the harvest next spring.

The issue has created sharp divisions within the Afghan government, 
among its Western allies and among U.S. officials of different 
agencies. The matter is fraught with political danger for Karzai, 
whose hold on power is weak.

Many spraying advocates, including officials at the White House and 
the State Department, view herbicides as critical to curbing 
Afghanistan's poppy crop, officials said. That crop and the opium and 
heroin it produces have become a major source of revenue for the 
Taliban insurgency.

But officials said the skeptics - including the U.S. military and 
intelligence officials and European diplomats in Afghanistan - fear 
that any spraying of U.S.-made chemicals over Afghan farms would be a 
boon to Taliban propagandists.

Some of these officials said the political cost could be especially 
high if the herbicide destroyed food crops that farmers often plant 
alongside their poppies.

"There has always been a need to balance the obvious greater 
effectiveness of spray against the potential for losing hearts and 
minds," said Thomas Schweich, the assistant secretary of state for 
international narcotics issues.

Bush administration officials say they will respect whatever decision 
the Afghan government makes on the matter. Crop-eradication efforts, 
they insist, are only part of a broad, new counter-narcotics strategy 
that will include increased efforts against traffickers, more aid for 
legal agriculture and development and greater military support for 
the drug fight.

For all the controversy over herbicide use, there is no debate that 
Afghanistan's drug problem is out of control. The country now 
produces 93 percent of the world's opiates, according to U.N. 
estimates. Its traffickers also are processing more opium into heroin 
base, a shift that has helped to increase Afghanistan's drug revenue 
exponentially since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001.

A U.N. report in August documented a 17 percent rise in poppy 
cultivation from 2006 to 2007, and a 34 percent rise in opium 
production. Perhaps more important for the effort to stabilize 
Afghanistan, officials said, the Taliban has been reaping a windfall 
from taxes on the growers and traffickers.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom