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Opium poppy harvest to grow

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan — The opium poppy harvest in Afghanistan"s volatile southern provinces will be much larger than last year"s record output, translating to greater funding for the Taliban insurgency, Afghanistan's counternarcotics minister says.

Drug cultivation in southern provinces continues to fuel insurgent activities, which are becoming more aggressive as poppy harvests near completion and Taliban foot soldiers take up arms, Habibullah Qaderi told The Washington Times.

Poppy production "in Helmand, Uruzgan, even Nangarhar province in the east, will be much more than last year," Mr. Qaderi said, noting that the Taliban tends to halt fighting in high-yield areas to reap maximum profits for its war chest.

Mr. Qaderi, appointed the country"s first counternarcotics czar by President Hamid Karzai, said Taliban insurgents levy taxes on drug traffickers while forcing farmers to grow poppies under constant death threats.

"They are taxing and protecting the growers and terrorizing poor farmers," he said. "Last year, they distributed leaflets saying you must grow poppy or we will kill you."

Afghanistan produced an estimated $3.1 billion worth of opium in 2006. Vast areas of poppy growing exceed what 46,000 U.S. and NATO troops can realistically cover, especially while battling Taliban guerrillas.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates opium accounted for nearly half of Afghanistan's national economy and 90 percent of the global opium market.

Some Western officials say opium output will increase by as much as 20 percent this year.

Farmers engaged in poppy cultivation are more likely to become drug addicts because the resins, which they handle daily during harvest periods, are absorbed through the skin.

About 1 million Afghans are using narcotics, with about 150,000 hard-core opium addicts and 50,000 heroin addicts, according to the ministry.

Drug-related corruption at all levels of government further undercuts efforts to combat production and usage, Mr. Qaderi said. He called for the arrests of "big fish and smugglers" but estimated it will take at least 10 to 15 years to bring the drug problem under control.

"I don"t like to say this here because if you tell Afghans it will take that long, they will get angry," he said.

Afghan farmers say they cannot give up poppy cultivation in the absence of viable alternatives. Living in one of the world"s poorest countries, they say, they need security, basic services and other measures to improve their quality of life.

The number of Afghans involved in the illicit trade, either as farmers or dealers, climbed last year from 2 million to nearly 3 million people, according to State Department figures released in March.

A counternarcotics trust fund was established in late 2005 by the Afghan government with help from the United Nations to bankroll a more comprehensive development strategy — spanning bridge and school construction, public drug-awareness campaigns and eradication — to win over farmers.

However, the Ministry of Counternarcotics, responsible for allocating funds to other government ministries that then carry out projects, has come under fire from some aid agencies for being too slow to dole out the $42 million received from donor governments over the past 18 months.

Mr. Qaderi defended the capacity of his ministry, asserting that although needs may be urgent, funding must not be wasted.