Crop spraying draws controversy in Afghan drug fight

The US may scrap or divert $152 million earmarked for aerial poppy eradication in Afghanistan this year.

Shortly after becoming Afghanistan's first democratically elected president, Hamid Karzai declared war on one of his country's most lucrative exports: opium. Three months on, the president has won an early skirmish over tactics by prevailing upon the US to shelve plans for aerial spraying of Afghan poppy crops.

Crop spraying is a major part of Washington's war on drugs in Latin America. But in Afghanistan, where income from the crop is crucial to many farmers, spraying has proved controversial.

Last November, the Karzai government protested when, without its knowledge, fields in two Afghan provinces were sprayed with a "mysterious substance." Both the US and British governments denied any involvement, but Afghan government officials say the US military controls that airspace.

The US had earmarked $780 million this year for Afghanistan's drug fight, including $300 million for eradication and $152 million for aerial spraying due to start in March. Now, the US State Department is reportedly reworking the budget proposal, possibly removing funds for spraying.

"We don't know the side effects of spraying. Also, Afghans are not used to seeing this kind of thing [spraying], it could be seen as an attack on the people not just the poppy crops. That is a dangerous road to take," says Gen. Mohammed Daud, Head of the Anti-Narcotics Department at the Ministry of Interior.

By ruling out crop spraying, the government has removed one of the few quick methods of combating the opium trade. But many analysts say that development efforts, such as finding alternatives for farmers, are more likely to succeed in the long run.

"[Spraying] is a ridiculous and shameful misallocation of resources, reflecting the political agenda of a few people in Washington," says Barnett Rubin, a professor at New York University and former adviser to the UN in Afghanistan. "Fortunately, faced with the united opposition of the Afghan government and the severe doubts of much of the US government and all US allies, they are now backing off and may reprogram funding for aerial eradication to alternative livelihoods."

According to a recent UN report, Afghanistan pumps out 87 percent of the world's opium and its heroin derivatives. The drug is planted in all 34 provinces of the country and can bring in 10 times the income of other crops. The trade in 2004 reaped $2.8 billion, up more than 20 percent from the previous year, and now makes up an estimated 60 percent of Afghanistan's legal economy.

Drug trafficking has also become a major source of income for Al Qaeda and the Taliban, a fact that has deepened US concerns.

"Virtually anything in Afghanistan that is funded by something other than foreign aid is funded by drug profits. According to reports, drug income in the south is sometimes split among various tribes, with a portion going to local Taliban," says Mr. Rubin.

The US military has so far shied away from playing a more active role in combating drugs in Afghanistan. Analysts say that US military involvement could overly tax its forces, and prove more expensive and time-consuming than mobilizing the Afghan government to tackle the problem.

Afghanistan currently has 1,000 trained and active counternarcotics personnel, about 600 of whom are in the provinces, burning and destroying poppy fields on the ground.

But officials say at least 4,000 officers are needed to actively monitor and destroy poppy farms, and another 5,000 to control the country's porous borders.

While ruling out crop spraying, Karzai is advocating another controversial tactic. In a recent press conference Karzai told reporters that he was considering offering amnesty to former drug traffickers with the hopes that they will lead the Afghan government to the bigger drug lords.

"We are discussing the amnesty issue. We need to make sure that the plan doesn't backfire on us and the big drug lords slip out of our hands," says General Daud.

However, in a country without any kind of formal national identification system, verifying drug traffickers and the identities of drug lords will be a major challenge. And with some 2.3 million Afghans involved in the drug trade the task becomes harder.

Some members of Karzai's Cabinet suggest a "bottom up" approach to the poppy dilemma. Afghanistan's newly appointed counternarcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, believes that subsidies and cash incentives should be given to encourage farmers to drop poppies and plant other cash crops.

Qaderi has suggested that the Afghan government pay the farmers involved in cultivating opium at least double the market price for crops such as rice, wheat, and cotton. But subsidies could cost upward of $1 billion for one year, more than has been promised by the US government for the entire antinarcotics effort over three years.

"We can't really beat a $2 to $3 billion-a-year industry with this type of money," said Omar Zakhilwal, chief policy adviser at the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development.

Afghanistan's long drought compounds the difficulty of finding alternative crops. Poppies require very little water to thrive.

Rubin also warns against eradicating poppy farms too quickly or before taking out the traffickers and the drug lords, as many farmers are still financially indebted to their "bosses" and could revolt against the Karzai government.

"You cannot eliminate 40 percent of the total economy [60 percent of the legal economy] in one of the poorest countries in the world through law enforcement," Rubin says. "And you also cannot do it in one year, or in five years. Economic shrinkage is one of the surest predictors of instability and conflict."

The Afghan government is especially concerned about maintaining security going into parliamentary elections that are scheduled for this spring.

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