Afghans move to eradicate opium, destroying fields in Taliban region
DOBUNDI, Afghanistan -- Anguish creased the weathered face of the opium farmer as a US-trained eradication team swept through his farm fields in this southern Afghan village.
With helicopters buzzing overhead, dozens of tractors plowed up Sadullah Khan's sprouting poppy plants, which in two months time would have yielded the sticky resin used to make heroin -- and earned him, by Afghan standards, a generous income.
After failing miserably to curb opium production last year, the Afghan government has launched a renewed eradication drive, particularly here in Helmand province -- which accounted for more than 40 percent of the 2006 record yield of 6,725 tons. The US government estimates the opium trade generates $3 billion a year in illicit economic activity.
There is some armed resistance to the campaign in Helmand, where drug gangs and Taliban militants form a powerful nexus against President Hamid Karzai's unpopular government. Still, counter-narcotics officials expect better results this year -- if not a resounding success.
That's cold comfort to Khan, a 55-year-old father of nine who owns 25 acres of land planted with poppies.
"When they are eradicating my poppy, it's just like they are destroying my home," he said, watching the heavily armed Afghan teams at work -- supported by a handful of US contractors, who rode in pairs through the rolling poppy fields on all-terrain vehicles.
There are fears the program could increase support for Taliban insurgents, but Karzai is under growing international pressure to crack down on Afghan drug production -- which accounts for more than 90 percent of global supply.
The year 2006 saw a 59 percent rise in opium cultivation to 407,700 acres, deepening fears that Afghanistan is rapidly becoming a narco-state.
A Western counter-narcotics official said it was too early for an accurate prediction of this year's crop, but he noted some positive signs.
Cultivation will likely drop significantly in the north and northeast while increasing slightly in some areas of the south, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
Lieutenant General Mohammed Daoud Daoud, the deputy interior minister for counter-narcotics, said 8,900 acres of poppy fields have been destroyed nationwide in the past month. The target is to destroy almost 14 times that figure -- a total of 123,550 acres -- before the harvest, which runs from April to July, from the south to the colder north.
The Western official doubted that target will be reached. But he said he hoped that 15 to 20 percent of the planted fields will be eradicated to demonstrate the "business risk" to poppy growers. Last year, only about 8 percent of planted fields were destroyed.
The campaign, supported mainly by the United States and Britain, carries a political and military risk for the government and its Western allies. It could generate more recruits for the Taliban, the militia that is threatening a spring offensive against NATO forces.
There have been five attacks in the past two weeks against the eradication campaign in Helmand, Farah and Nangarhar provinces, Daoud said. In the worst incident, a roadside bomb in Helmand's Nad Ali district killed two police officers and wounded three serving as guards for the eradication team.
Most eradication efforts are led by provincial governors who pay their teams with US money. But there's also a well-equipped, 550-man national eradication force under the Ministry of Interior, which is advised by the US security contractor Dyncorp.