Afghanistan's new jihad targets poppy production

A US, European, and Afghan initiative has cleared 80 percent of the opium plants from one province

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Last year at this time, the southeastern Afghan province of Nangrahar was covered with pink and white poppies, producing a quarter of the nation's opium crop. This year, after President Hamid Karzai announced a jihad or holy war against drugs, Nangrahar is almost 80 percent free of poppies.

Doing his small part, one Afghan businessman is selling an antiopium action movie "Black Poison" on DVD in Nangrahar. The locally made film combines romance, gunfire, and a message on the dangers of the drug trade.

Taken as a whole, the province is a model of what can be achieved here. Yet this regional victory in the war on drugs may be short-lived, say experts, if it is not coupled with some longer-term efforts to reform Afghanistan's judicial system, and to provide farmers with a sustainable alternative to opium.

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"Nangrahar was a good example that the Afghan government can work through information campaigns to get farmers to change their habits," says a UN official involved in drug control. "But we are doubtful that reductions can be sustained. Now farmers are going to expect some assistance, and if that assistance isn't coming, they will go back to cultivating poppies."

Eradication is just one of the more visible efforts to control the drug trade. With President Karzai's government fully engaged, the international community - with Britain in the lead - has developed a multipronged approach to Afghanistan's pervasive drug industry, including:

• A public affairs campaign to transform attitudes about drug production and use;

• Assistance for rebuilding the judicial system, including the Counternarcotics Prosecution Task Force and counternarcotics detention facilities;

• Creation of alternative livelihoods;

• Enhanced interdiction efforts.

"We now have the basis of all these key elements in place in Afghanistan," says Steve Atkins, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington. "It took 30 years in Thailand, which was a much less complex program. [Afghanistan] is a great challenge and one we don't underestimate."

Britain's efforts so far have focused on an eradication and verification program, and training a crack counternarcotics police force. Germany has concentrated its efforts on training local police, especially border police, capable of intercepting drug shipments.

"So far we have trained more than 30,000 Afghan policemen," says Ursula Müeller, political counselor at the German Embassy in Washington. "Some 3,000 of them are senior officers, but the majority of those trained will work at airports, borders, and as traffic and criminal police."

But she points out that being a policeman in Afghanistan is nearly as tough as it is in Iraq. Some 600 Afghan policemen have been killed on duty since Karzai's election. "They weren't killed because they saw someone speeding," Ms. Müeller says. "They were killed because they are out there doing a difficult job."

Until now, Afghanistan has put much of its energy into a $100 million, US-funded carrot and stick approach. The stick is forcible eradication of poppies in key growing areas. The carrot is cash-for-work on rebuilding irrigation systems and other infrastructure.

Eradication efforts in Nangrahar may have had some success, but elsewhere it has either been delayed by heavy snows, or met with armed resistance. In the Maiwand district of Kandahar gunfire broke out between government forces and local farmers during an abortive eradication effort, led by the country's new counter narcotics task force, the Task Force 333, which is being trained by the American security firm, Dyncorps.

Interdiction efforts have also increased, conducted by the nation's new Counter Narcotics Police, who have destroyed 60 heroin labs in Badakhshan province and seized 100 tons of heroin in the past year. But Afghan officials admit that smugglers have stayed several steps ahead of police, creating mobile heroin labs that are much harder to find.

Still, enhanced law enforcement can go only so far in an agrarian economy where much of the farm infrastructure - grain silos, irrigation systems, cotton gins, sugar mills - has been destroyed during the 25-year period of war. The solution, many agriculture experts say, is rebuilding this infrastructure so that farmers at least have some legitimate alternatives to growing opium.

"Farmers do not need poppy if the government and the foreign donors will support the traditional cash crops," says Richard Scott, a former USAID agricultural expert who has just finished a six-month project to renovate irrigation canals in Afghanistan's Helmand Province.

Over the past decade, the Helmand valley has become Afghanistan's primary opium growing area, but Mr. Scott says that farmers have no particular fondness for poppies. "The farmers are fairly direct in what they want, and it is not necessarily poppy in Helmand. What they need is a better price for cotton at the government-run cotton gin, so that they can make a living from a legal crop."

Last week, the European Union announced it will spend $477 million over the next two years to curb drug production here. About 30 percent of that money will go toward alternative crops.

Like the Afghan government, drug traffickers are exerting influence over farmers through carrot and stick programs, and the drug traffickers appear to be better funded. Many farmers receive payments in advance for the coming poppy crop, a fact that, in practice, obligates them to grow poppy even if it is against the law. And with police corruption so rampant in drug-growing areas, farmers often find that police are the people encouraging - or forcing - them to grow poppies.

Arresting drug dealers, of course, is one thing. Putting them on trial is another. One of the most daunting tasks in Afghanistan's war on drugs is the long-term project of creating a working criminal justice system. Afghanistan's problem was highlighted late last month when the US arrested a suspected Afghan drug smuggler, Haji Bashar Noorzai, in New York City. Ministry of Interior spokesman Lutfullah Mashal said at the time that Afghanistan would not have been capable of bringing Mr. Noorzai to justice without US help.

At present, Afghanistan has 40,000 police who are so poorly paid ($40 a month for policemen, $80 for officers) that many are unwilling or unable to arrest drug traffickers. Afghan prisons are so out of date that many prisoners escape, or bribe their way out of jail. And the country's judges and prosecutors have been trained under so many different legal frameworks (from a monarchical system, to a communist system, to an Islamic sharia system under the Taliban) that most criminal and civil cases are simply handled by tribal elders.

"The counternarcotics law is out of date," says a UN official. "If you are arrested in Helmand, you have to be tried in Helmand, and there is no guarantee of a fair trial. There are no secure prisons to detain people. And yet, you have to start somewhere. Just because things are not perfect doesn't mean you should sit back and say it's hopeless."

For now, Afghanistan's donor countries are beginning the long work of rebuilding the criminal justice system. "If people have a problem, and they don't feel they can go to the court with trust in the result, then the stabilization process will be disrupted," says Jolanda Brunetti, Italy's ambassador to Afghanistan and head of the judicial reform program. "But we are building the judicial process from scratch, and this is a fight that takes a very long time."

Faye Bowers contributed to this report from Washington.

Second of two parts. Part 1 appeared on Friday, May 13.

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