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INTERVIEW-Afghan opium production to expand after troops exit

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Fri, 25 Nov 2011 07:59 GMT
Author: Reuters
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(Repeats, correcting date)

By Christine Kearney

KABUL, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Afghanistan's former anti-drug czar has warned that opium poppy cultivation will dramatically increase as foreign combat troops head home, with farmers and insurgents taking advantage of a withdrawal set to be complete by the end of 2014.

Insecurity in poppy growing regions in Afghanistan -- the world's leading producer of opium -- and the expectation among insurgents and farmers that the country will be under the full control of Afghan forces within years is driving production, ex-counter-narcotics minister General Khodaidad said.

"With the coming exit strategy for 2014, the whole thing will be completely out of control. All the provinces will go more and more back to poppy," Khodaidad said at his Kabul house.

The country's poppy economy, which is estimated to provide insurgents with between ${esc.dollar}100 million and ${esc.dollar}400 million in funding each year, grew significantly in 2011, as soaring prices pushed farmers nationwide to expand production.

Land under poppy cultivation climbed 7 per cent from 2010 and the crop returned to three provinces in the north and east that had been declared "poppy-free", according to a joint report by the U.N. drugs agency and Afghanistan's counter-narcotics ministry released in October.

The report said poppy growth had increased after a disease shrank the previous year's harvest and pushed up prices for the drug that is processed into heroin, but Khodaidad said the unidentified disease was only a small factor.

"It is mostly due to security problems, corrupt officials and bad leadership in Afghanistan," said Khodaidad, who spent four years as minister for counter-narcotics and three as deputy minister. Parliament did not approve his reappointment in the position when it voted on the cabinet in 2010.

He is now unemployed but said he travels to international conferences to discuss Afghanistan.

Afghan security forces were not strong enough nor did they have the motivation to reduce poppy once foreign troops had left and in turn farmers did not trust them, Khodaidad said.

"They cannot protect the farmers," he said, referring to pressure on farmers in some insurgent-dominated areas to produce the lucrative and fast-growing crop.

"When there is no security there is poppy. When there is no law and order there is poppy. When there is corruption there is poppy," Khodaidad said.

Violence is at its worst in Afghanistan since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban from power in late 2001, the United Nations and other agencies say.

INSURGENTS IN CONTROL

The country's current drugs minister promised in October a bigger push to punish farmers who grow poppy crops, but Khodaidad said anti-drug laws were not being enforced.

Farmers are being told by insurgents in less secure areas that they will run the country within years, replacing the current administration, the ex-minister said.

"The Taliban is stronger than this present government and that directly affects poppy cultivation," he said. "The Taliban explains to the farmer that the foreign troops are leaving and if you grow poppy, I am still here."

Government officials earning kickbacks on the crop do not want to reduce poppy farming either, he said.

And lack of coordination between the Afghan government, western anti-drug agencies and neighboring countries was also contributing to the rise in production.

Russia's top anti-drug czar last week called U.S. efforts to eradicate poppy "unsatisfactory" and said joint Russian-American drug raids, which appeared to tail off this year, were struggling to get quick military approval.

Foreign troops fighting the decade-long war against a Taliban-led insurgency have largely abandoned eradicating poppy crops themselves because of the hostility it generates among poor Afghan farmers whose support they are trying to win.

There is still a large foreign-funded push to wean farmers off poppy, a hardy crop that needs relatively little water, by offering incentives to grow legal crops like subsidized wheat and fertiliser.

But Khodaidad said it was now too late to try such tactics and that western countries should prepare for more highly addictive heroin flowing into their countries.

"We lost 11 years for keeping promises to the farmers and to the provinces that 'We are supporting you.' A lot of money came into controlling drugs in Afghanistan but it didn't go in the right direction," he said. (Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison)

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