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November 19, 2004 - The New York Times (NY)

Afghan Poppy Growing Reaches Record Level, U.N. Says

By Carlotta Gall

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KABUL, Afghanistan - Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the source of most of the opium and heroin on Europe's streets, was up sharply this year, reaching the highest levels in the country's history and in the world, the United Nations announced on Thursday.

"In Afghanistan, drugs are now a clear and present danger," said Antonio Maria Costa, director of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, on the release of the 2004 Afghanistan opium survey. "The fear that Afghanistan might degenerate into a narco-state is becoming a reality."

Afghan officials and foreign diplomats called the sharp rise in cultivation and production a major failure for President Hamid Karzai and the international effort to counter narcotics.

More than 321,236 acres of land were planted with poppy in 2004, a 64 percent increase over last year, the United Nations survey found. Poppy has spread to every province in the country, it said.

It was only by chance that drought and disease ravaged much of the crop and prevented the harvest from exceeding the all-time high, the report said. The harvest in 2004 was estimated at 4,200 metric tons, an increase of 17 percent from last year.

The scale of poppy cultivation is particularly alarming, because of the growing stranglehold wealthy traffickers and drug lords hold over farmers, and their influence over the economy and government, Afghan officials and foreign experts said.

The income from production and trafficking of opium in 2004 was estimated at $2.8 billion, equivalent to about 60 percent of the country's legal gross domestic product, or more than a third of the total economy, the report said.

If the drug problem persists, "the political and military successes of the last three years will be lost," Mr. Costa said in a preface to the report. There are indications that Al Qaeda and the Taliban are profiting from the Afghan trade, the report said.

Gen. Muhammad Daoud, the recently appointed deputy interior minister in charge of countering narcotics, noted that "87 percent of the world's opium is produced by Afghanistan."

He added, "Unfortunately that is a very negative point for our country, and we will not gain any benefit from it, except a few smugglers in our country and neighboring countries."

Indeed, most of the profits go to a very few traffickers, warlords and militia leaders, rather than the impoverished farmers, who are often heavily in debt to the drug lords, the United Nations report said.

There are signs, too, of a move toward a greater vertical integration of the business and the growing involvement of international organized crime, according to a recent report by Barnett Rubin of the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

Law enforcement teams destroyed 78 drug-processing laboratories this year, General Daoud said. The existence of laboratories and seizures of more heroin than opium in neighboring countries are signs that heroin processing is increasing inside Afghanistan, the United Nations said.

The surge in cultivation, however, is a sign of the general impunity with which farmers can grow and harvest poppy, despite decrees outlawing it by Mr. Karzai, interim leader of Afghanistan for the last three years, foreign officials in Afghanistan say.

Until now, the Afghan government has not made the narcotics problem a priority. But since his election to a five-year term last month, Mr. Karzai has made more determined statements about combating the trade. In his acceptance speech, he vowed to make the fight against narcotics his first priority.

His administration has included known drug lords, and many of his provincial governors, police and army chiefs are widely rumored to profit from the trade, diplomats and Afghan officials acknowledge. Commanders of the powerful Northern Alliance, which with American help overthrew the Taliban in 2001, continue to profit from the trade in northeastern Badakhshan Province.

The minister of tribal affairs, Muhammad Arif Nurzai, and the governor of southern Helmand Province, Sher Muhammad Akhund, both staunch Karzai allies, are widely believed to profit from the drug trade, although both have denied any involvement and voiced support for the government's anti-narcotics stand.

Diplomats say there are even reports linking Mr. Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, an influential figure in the southern city of Kandahar, to the trade. A senior presidential adviser denied the reports, saying it is propaganda aimed against the president as well as his brother.

The government is finally trying to get the word out that poppy cultivation is illegal and that farmers will be penalized. The council of senior clerics recently issued a religious edict forbidding poppy growing.

But international assistance has been inadequate and ill focused, Mr. Rubin says. "U.S. cooperation with warlords and militia leaders tied to trafficking has sent the wrong signal about the U.S. commitment to combating narcotics," he said.

Britain, which has been leading the counternarcotics program here, says the job is a long-term one, and includes building up the justice system so traffickers can be imprisoned and creating alternatives for farmers.

But critics call the effort small and ineffective, and the British themselves are quick to recognize that their program is underfinanced and have welcomed new American involvement. The United States said Wednesday that it would give $780 million to combat narcotics in Afghanistan this year.

American plans, which focus on eradication, possibly with the use of defoliants, also have their critics, including Mr. Rubin, who argues that effort should concentrate on intercepting the narcotics at the borders and catching the big smugglers. Agriculturalists warn that defoliants could damage Afghanistan's already precarious agriculture.

Gen. Muhammad Zaher Agbar, head of a new unit set up within the Interior Ministry to eradicate poppy, said the experience this summer showed that the task was not as simple as cutting down poppy fields.

"It is not the ordinary people that are the problem," said Col. Miakhel Muhammad Mangal, commander of the force's Third Battalion, who found mines laid in the fields against his unit. "It is the groups behind them, the mafia."

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