US drug warriors have long wanted to unleash herbicidal sprays as a weapon to put a dent in Afghanistan's burgeoning opium poppy crop, but the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai -- along with a number of NATO allies -- has staunchly resisted American entreaties. In the wake of the country's record-breaking opium harvest this year, however, the Americans are turning up the pressure, but so far to no avail.
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
Afghanistan produced 93% of the global opium supply this year, and is increasingly exporting refined heroin as well as raw opium, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. While the Afghan government has undertaken manual eradication campaigns, they have been of limited effectiveness, reaching less than 10% of the crop this year.
For the Americans, eradicating the poppy crop is a key goal in Afghanistan, not only for traditional drug policy reasons, but also because some of the profits from the crop, estimated at $3 billion this year, end up financing the Taliban insurgency via taxes the rebels impose on farmers and merchants.
But for the Karzai administration, as well as some NATO countries with troops on the ground in Afghanistan, and some surprising elements of the US government including the Pentagon and the CIA, a massive aerial eradication campaign runs the risk of destabilizing the Afghan government by alienating farmers and pushing them into the waiting arms of the Taliban. The Afghan government has also raised health and environmental concerns about the widespread use of chemical herbicides, particularly glyphosate, or Roundup, which is the poison the Americans are pushing.
For at least two years, a cavalcade of top American officials, including President Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, national security advisor Stephen Hadley, and drug czar John Walters, have met with Karzai to try to convince him to change his stance -- to no avail. In April of this year, the Bush administration named William Wood the new ambassador to Kabul, fresh off a four-year stint as ambassador to Colombia, scene of the largest US-backed aerial eradication campaign against a drug crop. In August, US officials began turning up the heat.
"Aerial eradication is undoubtedly the most effective way," Thomas Schweich, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, told a news conference in Kabul in August. "You go in, you get large blocks of land in a very short period of time. You do it with minimal loss of life, since you don't have to fight your way in and you don't have to fight your way out. You don't ever negotiate with anybody," he said.
"We are working to convince the key ministers and President Karzai to accept this strategy," a US official "who asked not to be identified because of the issue's political sensitivity" told the New York Times this week. "We want to convince them to show some power. The government has to show its power in the remote provinces."
This weekend, State Department officials took the unusual step of sending one of its top crop-eradication experts to Kabul to attempt to persuade the Afghan government that glyphosate is safe. The expert, Charles Helling, a senior scientific adviser to the department's bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, met with Afghan officials who have publicly opposed the use of herbicides to wipe out the poppy crop.
"He is here to explain what it is and how it works. He is here to discuss the science of glyphosate, not to persuade anyone they should be spraying from planes or anything," an unnamed embassy official told Reuters. But the implication was clear: Glyphosate is safe and should be adopted by the Afghan government.
But as of this week, the Afghans weren't buying. "We have rejected the spraying of poppy in Afghanistan for good reasons: the effect on the environment, other smaller crops and on human genetics," the acting minister for counter-narcotics, General Khodaidad, told the
Guardian Tuesday. "It was a very friendly discussion, but it is difficult to change our mind," he added. "We listened to their experts and they listened to our experts and they eventually accepted our position would not change. Our responsibility is to the people of Afghanistan."
Still, the pressure is on. There are hints the Karzai government may seek to alleviate some of it by okaying a limited ground spraying project this coming spring, but so far the Afghans are standing firm.