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New Push Planned to Stem Afghan Opium Trade


The United States and the new government in Afghanistan are considering strategies to help curb the country's production of opium. Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of the poppy plant, from which opium is derived. Previous efforts to eradicate the crop have failed to reduce production levels. U.S. military may be playing a larger role in narcotics interdiction.

The United Nations calls Afghanistan's opium harvest last year the second largest ever in the country's history. The country continues to produce thousands of tons of opium and is the source of much of the heroin sold on the streets of Europe. Experts say more than half of the Afghan economy is based on the illegal sale of narcotics, making the country one of the most dependent in the world on the drug trade.

Now, U.S. officials say the United States and other countries are about to launch an intensified effort to crack down on poppy cultivation, in part through better training of Afghan security forces.

Lieutenant General David Barno, commander of the 18-thousand American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, told reporters several weeks ago increased opium production is posing a significant threat to the country's future. "We're assessing right now how the military will be able to relook at what our current roles are within our capabilities, our missions to provide further assistance in that fight," he said. "Eradication for U.S. troops would be less likely. I think we will play larger roles in assisting in other aspects of the drug fight, particularly in the interdiction aspect."

Also under consideration is providing better compensation to Afghan poppy growers who switch to other crops. But in a country so poor, where one out of every ten Afghans is estimated to be involved in the opium trade, some experts doubt that strategy will have much chance of success. "It is an extremely problematic approach," he said.

Larry Goodson, a specialist on Afghanistan who teaches Middle Eastern studies at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania said "At the very highest levels of the Afghan government and economy, people are profiting both directly and indirectly, including direct family members of very senior government officials, cabinet ministers, governors, chiefs of police, the so-called warlords as well as people in the Taleban and other opposition movements. So this permeates Afghan society."

A U.S. official tells VOA the goal is to have the more aggressive counter-narcotics strategy in place by next month but acknowledges making a significant dent in Afghanistan's opium production is going to be very difficult.

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