- The Washington Times - Friday, April 2, 2010

KABUL, Afghanistan | Opium seizures in Afghanistan soared 924 percent last year because of better cooperation between Afghan and international forces, the top U.S. drug enforcement official said Thursday.

The Taliban largely funds its insurgency by profits from the opium trade, making it a growing target of U.S. and Afghan anti-insurgency operations. Afghanistan produces the raw opium used to make 90 percent of the world’s heroin.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration now has 96 agents in the country who joined with Afghan counterparts and NATO forces in more than 80 combined operations last year, acting DEA administrator Michele Leonhart told reporters in Kabul.

“That is the success of bringing the elements, civil, military Afghan partners together,” Ms. Leonhart said.

She did not give figures for total amounts of drugs seized but said the increase was 924 percent between 2008 and 2009. The United Nations reported 50 tons of opium was seized in the first half of last year.

International groups estimate that only about 2 percent of Afghanistan’s drug production was blocked from leaving the country in 2008 for markets in Central Asia and Europe.

Ms. Leonhart said eradication efforts had already scored some success in the south, with opium cultivation down more than 30 percent in Helmand province that is responsible for half of Afghanistan’s total production.

She said the DEA was working with U.S. forces moving into the Taliban heartland, including “significant operations” in Helmand, where the poppy harvest season is in full-swing.

Such operations place the Afghan government and its foreign allies in a bind because eradicating poppy fields risks driving angry farmers, for whom opium poppy is a cheap, hardy, low-risk crop, into the arms of the insurgents because they fear the loss of their livelihood.

Efforts to replace opium with other crops such as wheat and vegetables haven’t scored wide success because profits for the farmers are much lower than for poppies.

In a sign that traffickers are striking back against such efforts, 13 people were killed Wednesday when a bomb concealed on a bicycle exploded near a crowd gathered to receive free vegetable seeds provided by the British government as part of a program to encourage them not to plant opium poppy.

Meanwhile, President Hamid Karzai lashed out at the U.N. and international community Thursday, accusing them of interfering in last year’s fraud-tarnished presidential election and seeking to weaken his authority after parliament rejected his bid to expand his control over the country’s electoral institutions.

During a speech to employees of the state election commission, Mr. Karzai acknowledged there had been “vast fraud” in the August vote, which returned him to office for a second, five-year term. But he blamed the fraud on the U.N. and other foreign organizations, which he suggested were part of an international conspiracy to deny him re-election or tarnish his victory.

“No doubt, there was huge fraud. There was vast fraud. The fraud is not by the Afghans. This fraud has been done by the foreigners,” Mr. Karzai said, including officials of the U.N., the European Union and “the embassies here in Kabul.”

He accused unidentified foreign embassies of trying to bribe members of the Karzai-appointed Independent Election Commission with offers of bulletproof cars in hopes they would block his first-round victory.

Mr. Karzai’s comments also sharpened the power struggle with an increasingly independent-minded parliament over whether foreigners will help oversee parliamentary balloting scheduled for September.

On Wednesday, the lower house of parliament canceled a decree Mr. Karzai issued in February revoking the authority of the United Nations to appoint most of the members of the election fraud commission that threw out his ballots last year.

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