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Afghan Anti-Drug Chief Warns Against Rapid Eradication Effort

Afghanistan's new minister for counter-narcotics, Habibullah Qaderi, says his government is determined to fight the booming drug trade, but must proceed very cautiously in eradicating the country's poppy fields so as not to alienate farmers who depend on the crop.

Mr. Qaderi is asking the international community for financial assistance so that the government can subsidize farmers to grow cash crops instead of the opium poppies that are the raw material for heroin. The United Nations says opium accounts for 60 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

President Hamid Karzai has declared a war on drugs, and Mr. Qaderi says the country's religious leaders have also issued an edict against drug production.

But the minister warns that eradicating opium production overnight is not an option because it is often the only source of income for poor farmers.

"To take away the livelihood of the farmers could create security problems in certain parts of Afghanistan, especially at this moment of time because the election is coming," said Habibullah Qaderi.

NATO's top civilian representative in Afghanistan, Hikmet Cetin, agrees with Mr. Qaderi that any move against poppy farmers now would be risky, especially as the country gears up for crucial parliamentary elections in a few months. But he says that, eventually, the Afghan government and the international community will have to deal with the problem.

"We have to be very careful, but we should not forget that, in the long, long term, stabilization without counter-narcotics will not come to Afghanistan. That is for sure," said Hikmet Cetin.

Mr. Cetin says security in Afghanistan has improved and that the threat from the country's former Taleban rulers and their al-Qaida allies has diminished. He says the main threat to a stable Afghanistan, aside from drugs, is poverty, and he backed Mr. Qaderi's call for international aid to wean farmers off of opium cultivation.

Mr. Qaderi is not only appealing for international help to subsidize crop substitution programs for at least four or five years. He also is asking for investment to rebuild irrigation systems and roads so farmers can take their produce to market.

But he did not explain how he expects farmers to turn away from a crop like opium that the U.N. says generates 10 times the income per hectare than wheat or other cash crops.