- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2012

The other war in Afghanistan — the one to reduce the opium poppy crop by eradication, crop trade-offs and threats — has made substantial gains over the past five years as cultivation has dropped 32 percent.

But one key poppy-eradication program, called the Food Zone, is in jeopardy as the State Department decides whether it wants to pick up the bill to persuade farmers to give up heroin-producing poppies in favor of wheat, pomegranates, saffron and other crops.

A review by The Washington Times of U.N. surveys shows opium poppy cultivation peaked at 477,000 acres in 2007 and has dropped since then to 323,700 acres.

The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime in Vienna, Austria, which conducts the count in conjunction with Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics, has not ballyhooed the reduction in its reports on the country’s $1.4 billion cash crop.

Instead, it has focused on the continued problems of the world’s largest opium producer in terms of drug addiction, corruption and drug money for the Taliban. It notes that the overall cultivation decrease stalled in the past year.

But Andre Hollis, who just finished a year-plus stay in Afghanistan as a senior adviser to the counternarcotics minister, said the tide is turning.

Mr. Hollis, who was a Pentagon counternarcotics policymaker for Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, said the decrease has been especially dramatic in southern Helmand province, the opium capital of Afghanistan and the world.

The Food Zone program

The U.N. numbers show Helmand peaked at 254,000 acres in 2007 and was down to 156,400 acres last year.

Mr. Hollis credits the Food Zone for a swath in Helmand’s farming district. The Food Zone has spurred a 38 percent decrease in opium growing over the past two years in that district and should be expanded, he said.

The key is to provide not just fertilizer and seed but also a strategy for storing the crops and transporting them to market on roads leading from Helmand, he said.

“The farmer doesn’t use opium in large part,” Mr. Hollis said. “He’s trying to put food on his table, [a] roof over his family’s head, clean water. You’ve got to give them a truly practical alternative to doing something in Afghanistan that is illegal cultivation. There are multiple fatwas under Islam against it. So most of these guys don’t want to do it, but they have no other option.”

Mr. Hollis, who runs Tiger International Advisors, said a driving force to reducing opium poppy fields is Helmand’s governor, Gulab Mangal.

Mr. Mangal, who at one time urged the U.S. to put more forces in his province to combat the Taliban, has ordered the arrests of some family heads of households until they eradicate the crop, Mr. Hollis said.

“He is one of the rare examples where someone through their force of personality is creating change, and in a positive way,” he said. “It would not have happened if it hadn’t been for Mangal.”

Thomas Pietschmann, an analyst at the U.N. Office of Drug and Crimes, told The Times that it is “difficult to speak” of a trend in the right direction on poppy growing, given other indicators.

He said some of the decline can be attributed to a fall in opium prices from 2007 through 2010, followed by a sharp increase that paralleled a rise in cultivation from 304,000 acres to the current 323,700 acres.

A good sign: The number of poppy-free provinces climbed sharply from six to 20. But, the U.N. says, that number probably will fall to 15 this year.

“Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that between 2007 and 2010, the area under poppy cultivation declined,” Mr. Pietschmann said, citing the Food Zone as one factor.

“Some improvements in security may have also played a role, given the larger employment of troops there. Indeed, there is a very close relationship between security and opium production in Afghanistan, he said.

“With the security situation deteriorating again across Afghanistan, there is again a risk of higher opium production in the foreseeable future.”

The United Nations‘ latest report on what is likely to happen this year states: “In parts of Helmand and Kandahar, the main dominant reason for declining in poppy cultivation is due to improvement in the security situation, campaign by the government, fear of eradication and agriculture assistance particularly within the Helmand Food Zone.”

Although the total crop is down 32 percent compared with 2007, Afghanistan remains awash in opium poppies.

The Taliban connection

Afghanistan was the top global producer even after the hard-line Islamic Taliban took power in 1996.

The extremists used the cash from the country’s only significant export to finance government operations. Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar eventually decreed its cultivation as un-Islamic, and the farming of poppies ceased. But the Taliban stockpiled raw opium and sold it as needed.

With the 2001 U.S.-led invasion and ensuing counterinsurgency, security deteriorated and opium production climbed relentlessly to 477,000 acres. The U.N. says the Taliban again have tapped into the illegal market to finance their war to topple the democratic government in Kabul.

“In recent months, the Taliban have reversed their position once again and started to extract from the drug economy resources for arms, logistics and militia pay,” the U.N. reported as opium production reached its peak in 2007. “Opium cultivation in Afghanistan is now closely linked to insurgency.”

In 2009, the U.N. reported that the Taliban made $155 million on the drug trade by taxing farmers and providing security to opium and heroin traffickers.

The Helmand Food Zone is helping cut off those funds. But now it is in trouble.

The U.S., Britain and Denmark provided $56 million to set up the special area over the past three years. But with allies pulling out of the country, the State Department will have to pay the bill if such zones are to be created in other provinces.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, is pressing the State Department to fill the gap.

“The drug problem in Afghanistan cannot be ignored, because it is now a major source of funding for the Taliban,” she wrote Feb. 7 to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“Programs like the Helmand Food Zone are essential because their success can ultimately help to cut off financing to the Taliban. … Replication of the Helmand Food Zone in additional high-poppy-cultivation provinces will help to achieve the dual goal of strengthening Afghanistan’s economy while weakening the Taliban.”

Mrs. Feinstein followed up the letter by meeting privately March 27 with State Department officials and as Afghanistan’s top counternarcotics minister, Zarar Ahmad Osmani.

A staffer said State Department officials at the meeting made no commitment to expand the Food Zone program.

“The British are broke,” Mr. Hollis said. “If State does not act, the Food Zone will go away.”

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