US admits defeat on opium campaign

The US has finally acknowledged that its opium eradication campaign in Afghanistan is failing, announcing that it would no longer support efforts to wipe out production.

Western occupation forces have spent over eight years helping Afghan security forces to tear up poppy fields, but Afghanistan remains the world’s leading source of opium, cultivating at least 93 per cent of the world’s heroin-producing crop.

Speaking on the sidelines of a G8 foreign ministers’ meeting in Italy, Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said that eradication “might destroy some acreage, but it didn’t reduce the money the Taliban got by one dollar.

“The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure – they did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work,” Mr Holbrooke acknowledged.

He said that the US would now focus on intercepting drugs and chemicals used to make them and taking on the country’s powerful drug lords.

But Afghan anti-drug chief General Khodaidad Khodaidad maintained that Afghanistan has achieved “a lot of success” with its anti-drug strategy, which relies heavily on manual eradication of poppy fields, monetary incentives and public relations campaigns to persuade farmers not to plant poppies.

But a recent UN report showed that, in 2008, only 5,480 hectares were cut down – compared with 19,047 hectares in 2007.

And out of 23 villages where Afghan officials reportedly eradicated poppies in 2008, 11 of those villages – 48 per cent – still planted poppy for 2009.

The UN drug office estimated last year that the opium trade earned militants an estimated $50 million (£30m) to $70m (£42m).

It stressed that many farmers have simply switched from growing opium to cannabis, with hashish production increasing by 40 per cent around the country.

This has led to speculation that Afghanistan has supplanted Morocco as the world’s number one producer.

Gen Khodaidad said that Kabul was awaiting details of the new US strategy and that officials would work with their US counterparts on it.

“Whatever programme or strategy would benefit Afghanistan, we welcome it,” he said.

“We are happy with our policy – our strategy’s perfect.”

Tom Mellen