- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 25, 2005

The United States is postponing its proposal to use aerial-sprayed chemicals to destroy opium fields in Afghanistan, after Afghan President Hamid Karzai opposed the plan, the U.S. State Department’s top counternarcotics official said yesterday.

“President Karzai is calling the shots,” said Assistant Secretary of State Robert B. Charles, who leads the department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). “The decision is going to be his.”

Postwar Afghanistan has emerged as the world’s top producer of opium, which is used to make heroin. Officials say illegal proceeds from the drug are used to support terrorist activities in the region and possibly around the world.

Mr. Karzai, who was elected president in October after serving two years as the U.S.-picked interim leader, repeatedly has voiced his commitment to the aggressive campaign against opium production. But in November, his government publicly opposed the use of aerial spraying, saying it posed a major health risk to children and adults.

The State Department planned to spend more than $150 million this year on the aerial-spraying program, but Mr. Karzai wants the pace and sequencing of the eradication effort “to be different than what we initially proposed,” Mr. Charles said.

Mr. Charles said the money, representing about 20 percent of the INL’s 2005 budget for counternarcotic operations in Afghanistan, can be channeled easily into alternative programs, including “ground eradication” techniques desired by Mr. Karzai.

Afghan officials say such eradication efforts already are showing results, and forecast a nationwide drop of 30 percent to 70 percent in the crop production this year, the Associated Press reported. Other efforts involve “pursuing significant criminal sanctions” against drug traffickers, Mr. Charles said.

But aerial eradication “is not off the table” in Afghanistan, where it still might prove to be the only means of fully destroying the massive opium crop, Mr. Charles said. U.S. officials claim major successes in aerial eradication to destroy drug crops in other areas, such as Colombia.

On the condition that Mr. Karzai finds ground eradication techniques are insufficient, “I think there’s every reason to believe that he will consider the possibility of air eradication next year,” Mr. Charles said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee and a strong proponent of aerial eradication, said the United States must continue pushing other eradication strategies.

“Until the time the new, democratically elected Afghan government signals its support for aerial spraying of illicit crops, we need a very robust and effective interdiction strategy to go after the heroin labs and the Afghan narcoterrorist kingpins,” Mr. Hyde said.

Some news reports have suggested that the Afghan opposition to aerial spraying stems from high-level Afghan government officials and police, who have been profiting from the illegal drug trade, which is said to represent as much as 60 percent of the country’s economy.

“You begin an aerial program in Afghanistan, and you will effectively gut what little authority that Kabul has now in the region,” said one source, adding that the program also could compound “an even greater diplomacy problem: trying to assure Muslims of the world that we’re not poisoning them to death.”

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