- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 5, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan must provide an economic alternative to producing opium and win the hearts and minds of the rural poor, the economy minister says.

“That Afghanistan is producing the largest amount of opium in the world is a fact nobody can deny. It is also true that there is no real alternative livelihood for the people who are cultivating poppy at the moment in Afghanistan,” Minister of Economy Mohammad Jalil Shams told The Washington Times.

Afghan drug production grew by almost 60 percent compared with last year, according to U.N. figures. Drug production now accounts for more than 50 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product.

The booming drug economy supports the Taliban, which is wagingits fiercest campaign since being ousted by U.S.-led coalition forces five years ago for sheltering Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda.

Mr. Shams said in an interview this week that to resolve the drug problem, Afghanistan’s economy must be rebuilt.

Establishing electrical power is a top priority, he said.

Once energy and electricity are in place to sustain industries and attract foreign investment, Mr. Shams said, it is a matter of identifying areas where Afghanistan has a competitive advantage and capitalizing on untapped native resources such as copper and iron.

He said the biggest challenge will be the economic integration of farmers in the countryside who depend on poppy cultivation for a livelihood.

Mr. Shams said alternative crops being tested include saffron in Herat province and roses in Jalalabad.

Mr. Shams said that “small steps” were being taken now and dramatic changes are not likely in the near future.

“It takes time, as we can see in other countries such as Pakistan, which has been successful maybe because a part of their [drug] industry has been transferred to Afghanistan,” Mr. Shams said.

“They now have alternatives for farmers. It took them at least eight to 10 years. It took Thailand about 20 years to get rid of drug cultivation.”

The minister insisted his country was not doomed to become a narco-state, saying it is “only a matter of time before the situation improves.”

A recent report by the Senlis Council, a British think tank, said the Taliban has regained control of the southern half of the country largely because of misguided U.S.-led counternarcotics and military policies.

The report charges there has been a “dramatic under-funding of aid and development programs.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with President Bush in Washington last week to appeal for greater military and development aid.

“We shall try to win the confidence of the people, but without that, even if we are the strongest possible militarily, it is not possible to establish security,” he said.

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