Afghanistan: Pressure mounts for aerial poppy-spraying

KABUL, 7 June 2007 (IRIN) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai is under pressure from the USA to implement a controversial counter narcotics plan that should eradicate Afghanistan's poppy fields by spraying chemicals, officials confirmed on Thursday.

"We are under pressure to use chemicals for the eradication of poppy fields," Habibullah Qadiri, Afghanistan's minister of counter narcotics, told IRIN in the capital, Kabul.

In 2006, a US government plan to aerial spray poppy fields to stop opium production in Afghanistan was rejected by President Karzai, following health concerns raised by the country's Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) over the possible side effects on farmers and local residents.

"In rural areas people use stream water for drinking, washing and other purposes. The use of chemicals against poppy fields will contaminate water and that can cause grave consequences for many rural residents," the ministry warned.

"There are also risks of other useful plants being poisoned by the chemicals or farm animals being affected by them," MoPH reported to a government committee on counter narcotics.

However, according to one western diplomat, a US delegation is expected, in the very near future, to present to the Afghan authorities fresh proposals, including a safe spray that will not have side effects.

Opposition to spray weakening?

The UN Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) estimates that Afghanistan's opium production will increase in 2007 from the record level of 6,100 metric tonnes it produced in 2006.

"The government has virtually failed to counter narcotics and the boom in opium production every year is confirmation of that," a senior official at the Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN) who preferred anonymity, conceded.

With increasing poppy cultivation and continued pressure from the USA, some Afghan officials have now changed their "no to chemical spray" thinking.

"If we realise that Taliban insurgents and terrorists continue to profit from narcotics and we find that our strategy cannot tackle the problem then, as an ultimate option, we will use chemical spray," Minister Qadiri confirm to IRIN.

UK diplomat sceptical

Meanwhile, a British diplomat in Kabul dealing with counter narcotics doubted the usefulness of aerial or land chemical spray on poppy fields.

"It will not be an Afghan solution to their problem and, meanwhile, it will not be a sustainable solution either. Britain does not support it," added the diplomat who did not want to be named.

The US embassy in Kabul preferred not to comment on the issue until an American delegation visits Afghan officials in the coming two weeks.

Counter narcotics fund

Almost half of Afghanistan's national economy is based on illicit money earned from opium.

According to the UNODC, the country produced US$3.1 billion worth opium in 2006 alone. Although a small fraction of opium money actually remains in Afghanistan, many Afghan farmers say they need tangible assistance in terms of alternative livelihoods in order to stop cultivating poppy.

In an effort to address such demands, the Afghan government, supported by the UN and other donors, established a counter narcotics trust fund in late 2005 which, however, managed to spend less than $800,000 on alternative livelihoods in 2006.

"We admit low capacity in the government [thus] impeding our efforts to spend more funds on alternative livelihoods," acknowledged Wahidullah Shahrani, a deputy finance minister.