- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 28, 2009

TRIESTE, Italy | The United States is shifting its strategy against Afghanistan’s drug trade, phasing out funding for opium eradication while boosting efforts to fight trafficking and promote alternate crops, the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan said Saturday.

The aim of the new policy: to deprive the Taliban of the tens of millions of dollars in drug revenues that are fueling its insurgency.

The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard C. Holbrooke, said poppy eradication - for years a cornerstone of U.S. and U.N. anti-drug-trafficking efforts in the country - was not working and was only driving Afghan farmers into the hands of the Taliban.

“Eradication is a waste of money,” Mr. Holbrooke said on the sidelines of a Group of Eight foreign ministers’ meeting on Afghanistan, during which he briefed regional representatives on the new policy. “It might destroy some acreage, but it didn’t reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban. So we’re going to phase out eradication.”

The Afghan foreign minister, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, also attended the G-8 meeting.

Eradication efforts were seen as inefficient because too little was being destroyed at too high a cost, U.N. drug chief Antonio Maria Costa said.

The old policy was also deeply unpopular among powerless small-scale farmers, who often were targeted in the eradication efforts.

Afghanistan is the world’s leading source of opium, cultivating 93 percent of the world’s heroin-producing crop. While opium cultivation dropped 19 percent last year, it remains concentrated in Afghanistan’s southern provinces, where the Taliban is strongest, and last year earned insurgents an estimated $50 million to $70 million, according to the U.N. drug office.

The new policy calls for assisting farmers who abandon poppy cultivation. Mr. Holbrooke said the international community wasn’t trying to target Afghan farmers, just the Taliban militants who buy their crops.

Mr. Holbrooke told the G-8 ministers that Washington was increasing its funding for agricultural assistance from tens of millions of dollars a year to hundreds of millions of dollars, said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy, the current G-8 president.

“We’re essentially phasing out our support for crop eradication and using the money to work on interdiction, rule of law, alternate crops,” Mr. Holbrooke said.

The policy also calls for coordinating a crackdown on drug trafficking across Afghanistan’s border before the heroin reaches addicts in Europe, Russia and Iran.

In recent months, U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan have begun attacking drug labs and opium-storage sites in an effort to deprive the Taliban of drug profits.

According to a U.N. report this week, opium eradication reached a high in 2003, after the Taliban were ousted from power, with more than 51,900 acres destroyed. In 2008, only 13,500 acres were cut down, compared with 47,000 acres in 2007.


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