The United States Thursday announced a new, more aggressive, strategy for curbing the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan. U.S. officials concede that opium poppy production in the country overall is growing but say there have been local successes. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The United States, in coordination with Britain, other NATO countries and the Kabul government, is launching a new counter-drug strategy that would reward Afghan localities that reduce poppy cultivation and toughen coercive measures against traffickers and growers in other areas.
Afghanistan now produces about 90 percent of the world's illicit heroin derived from poppies. Officials here acknowledge that poppy cultivation overall is on the increase, mainly in Helmand and other southern provinces where the Taleban insurgency is strongest.
However, they say the opposite is true in the more secure northern region, and that six provinces of the country can already be considered poppy-free.
The new strategy aims at reinforcing the gains by speeding aid deliveries to localities making progress against the drug trade.
There would be greater coordination of counter-narcotics and counter-Taleban operations in the south with more action, including crop eradication, directed against high-level drug traffickers who often work in concert with insurgents.
At a news conference, acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Thomas Schweich said Afghans involved in the drug trade need to know they will be targeted along with insurgents.
"They need to understand that there is a direct relationship between the insecurity and the success or failure of the insurgency and the opium trade," he said. "There is increasing and more and more alarming intelligence about more integrated relationships between narco-traffickers and insurgents and Taleban."
"And for that reason, we need to make it clear that if you are supporting the poppy trade in the south of Afghanistan, you are supporting insecurity and you are supporting the Taleban," he continued.
The controversial practice of crop eradication would remain part of the strategy, though U.S. officials acknowledge differences with Britain, which has played the lead role in Afghan anti-drug efforts, over the use of aerial spraying.
U.S. Director of National Drug Control Policy John Walters said past eradication efforts had generated public anger, with small farmers feeling targeted while big growers with political connections were spared. He said coercive measures in the new strategy would be aimed against major offenders and corrupt officials.
"The opium poppy is a volcano, whose lava feeds corruption," said Walters. "It creates an incentive for people to be compromised."
"It has to be closed off. But part of it is not just to go after the farmer, obviously. But most of these parts address the leadership, address the institutional structures and making them stronger, but also going after the people who are making the big money. The big money made off of opium in Afghanistan is made by the upper levels of the chain: the warlords, the traffickers, the corrupt individuals who are involved in this."
The officials admitted there is no substitute crop that would be as lucrative for Afghan farmers as poppy. But they said ending poppy cultivation would bring farmers ancillary benefits including greater peace and security as drug lords and criminals are uprooted.
The new strategy would only modestly increase U.S. anti-drug aid to Afghanistan, now about $600 million a year. But development aid would be moved more quickly to localities curbing poppy production, to show tangible benefits for cooperation.
Walters dismissed proposals for legalizing all or part of the Afghan opium trade, saying there is already more than enough regulated world-wide production for morphine and other medicines.
He also said legal poppy production in secure parts of Afghanistan would do nothing to curb illegal output in Taleban-controlled areas, which is the core of the problem.