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A bicycle bomb attack today in southern Afghanistan appeared aimed at a Western anti-opium program.
The Associated Press, citing local police, reported at least eight killed in the attack in the Nahr-e-Sarraj district just north of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province. The New York Times and Reuters reported at least 13 killed and 40 wounded. The dead were farmers who had gathered to receive free seeds, fertilizer, and other supplies as part of a British program to encourage farmers to grow crops like wheat.
The New York Times reported that the bomb was hidden on a bicycle in a crowded bazaar. The paper quoted a provincial government spokesman on the perpetrators and intended target.
“The Taliban and narcotics smugglers were behind this attack,” said Daoud Ahmadi, the spokesman for the Helmand provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, who has been a strong supporter of the [anti-opium growing] program and other western-backed efforts to reduce the poppy cultivation industry that dominates Helmand’s economy.
“This was an attempt at intimidating people and stopping the process of development and peace building in the province,” Mr. Ahmadi said.
An ongoing NATO campaign currently targets both the Taliban insurgency and the opium trade that funds it. The campaign employs the stick of military force and the carrot of incentives to farmers to grow crops other than opium.
Tuesday's bombing comes after a NATO military push into the Taliban-controlled opium-growing area of Marjah in February, and ahead of a planned push this summer into the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar. But as has been reported, American and NATO commanders are willing to overlook opium production when necessary to win over the local populations. “Marja is a special case right now,” a member of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal's top advisory body recently told The New York Times. “We don’t trample the livelihood of those we’re trying to win over.”
Separately, the United Nations announced today that Afghanistan is now the world's largest producer of cannabis, showing that the country's drug problem goes beyond opium, according to a Reuters report.
The UN said that the Taliban also raises funds by taxing cannabis cultivation, Reuters reported.
A 2008 report from the United Nations' Office of Drugs and Crime said that a decline in opium prices and production had shrunk the crop's role in the broader Afghan economy. But it still provides important revenues for the Taliban, the report said.
"Despite the drop in opium cultivation, production and prices, the Taliban and other anti-government forces are making massive amounts of money from the drug business....
"With so much drug-related revenue, it is not surprising that the insurgents' war machine has proven so resilient, despite the heavy pounding by Afghan and allied forces", said the Executive Director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa.
In a report last year for the United States Institute of Peace, journalist and author Gretchen Peters examined the close ties between the opium trade and Afghan politics over three decades of conflict in the war-wracked country.
"Understanding the nexus between traffickers and the Taliban could help build strategies to weaken the insurgents and to extend governance," Peters wrote. "This report argues that it is no longer possible to treat the insurgency and the drug trade as separate matters, to be handled by military and law enforcement, respectively."