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Special report: foreign affairs

Britain losing new Afghan opium war

Patrick Wintour
Thursday August 7, 2003
The Guardian

British-led plans to destroy Afghan opium poppy farming, responsible for 90% of the UK's heroin supply, have made little progress so far, UN figures will show next month.

Britain, responsible for the international coordination of the fight against the Afghan drug trade, is to call a donors' conference to raise extra funds to combat the Afghan economy's dependence on opium production. The conference will also examine alternative livelihoods for desperately poor farmers attracted to the profitable opium market.

The conference - probably to be held in Afghanistan in November - will bring the major agencies together including the UN, the Aid Development Bank, the World Bank and the European Union, as well as individual countries.

Britain has already provided nearly £300m to Afghanistan over three years, including £70m just to fight drugs.

Afghanistan supplies 70% of the world's heroin and 90% of the British market, making the success of the Afghan harvest a key determinant of the street price of British heroin.

Preliminary surveys in the spring showed Afghan poppy farmers have refused to abandon such a profitable crop. They have avoided government eradication programmes by planting in more remote areas and staggering their production.

In September, the UN is to publish its estimate of this year's opium poppy harvest, but the Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell, just back from a visit to Afghanistan, said it was unlikely to show any dramatic reduction.

"This is going to take a long time and many of the fruits of our efforts will not be seen until the back end of a planned 10-year programme," Mr Rammell said yesterday. "If we are to provide a solution to the problems of heroin that blight so many UK citizens' lives, then we have got to come up to an international solution to Afghanistan."

He added: "Bluntly that means more countries coming up with more cash. Britain has got a good track record, but we would like more countries to match that commitment."

President Hamid Karzai banned poppy cultivation in January 2002, but the ban has had limited impact in the main poppy-growing areas. A Taliban ban in 2000 saw production, if not trade, fall massively.

Large tracts of the country most dependent on opium cultivation are beyond the control of Mr Karzai's police force. Sowing can start as early as October and continue to spring, making 2003 the first year in which to the impact of Mr Kazai's ban and extent to which his writ runs in the country can be judged. The poppy harvest can continue as late as September, but the UN - using field inspections and satellite imagery - gains estimates by July.

The 2002 figures showed an increase to 74,000 hectares (185,000 acres) from the low of 8,000 after a Taliban-imposed ban in 2001. The 2002 production figures appeared to exceed the 1999 record yield. A quarter of the 2002 harvest was destroyed, the UN estimates.

"Proper law enforcement is crucial," Mr Rammell said. "Without sufficient capable police, the Afghan authorities will struggle to solve the problem."

In a country where annual incomes barely reach $170 (£106), farmers can earn up to $6,500 a year from opium production.Mr Rammell said he hoped the best arable harvest after years of drought may encourage farmers to return to legal farming. But analysts fear the good rains will increase poppy yields.

 Special report
Drugs in Britain

 Government's new drug strategy
Updated drugs strategy 2002 (pdf)
Updated drug strategy 2002 - what's new (pdf)
Updated drug strategy 2002 - executive summary (pdf)

25.10.2001: Reclassifying cannabis

 Net notes
10.07.2002: Cannabis

 Useful links
UK Online: drugs

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