Rebuffing months of U.S. pressure, President Hamid Karzai has decided Afghanistan will not implement a Colombia-style program to spray the country's heroin-producing poppies, bowing to pressure from top Cabinet members who feared a popular backlash, officials said Thursday.
The decision dashes U.S. hopes that herbicide sprayed by ground applicators would help combat Afghanistan's opium trade after a record crop in 2006.
Karzai instead "made a very strong commitment" to lead the country's manual eradication efforts this year, and said that if production didn't go down he would allow spraying in 2008, a Western official said on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.
The spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Counternarcotics, Said Mohammad Azam, said ground spraying "will be in the list of options" next year, if the increased efforts this year to destroy poppy fields by "traditional techniques" do not work.
Such techniques typically involve sending teams of laborers into fields to batter down or plow in the plants before they can be harvested. A similar campaign during 2006 failed.
Fueled by the Taliban, a powerful drug mafia and the need for a profitable crop that can overcome drought, opium production from poppies in Afghanistan last year rose 49 percent to 6,700 tons — enough to make about 670 tons of heroin. That's more than 90 percent of the world's supply and more than the world's addicts consume in a year.
The booming drug economy, and the involvement of government officials and police in the illicit trade, compounds the many problems facing Afghanistan's fledgling democracy, amid stepped-up attacks by militant supporters of the former Taliban regime.
Top Cabinet members — including the agriculture, defense and rural redevelopment ministers — pressured Karzai to nix the spraying plans, saying herbicide would contaminate water, hurt humans, farm animals and legitimate produce, officials said. The ministers also feared a violent backlash from rural Afghans, the Western official said.
"We're happy with Karzai's decision. Spraying affects the animals and vegetables, even humans," said Asadullah Wafa, the governor of the top drug-producing province, Helmand.
"There is another way to eradicate, like launching operations through all the districts, and I hope the international community will give us tractors and provide more troops to destroy poppies."
Roundup would have been used
U.S. officials have said the herbicide in question — glyphosate, sold as Roundup in the United States — is perfectly safe. It would have been applied by ground spraying to allay Afghan fears of chemicals falling from the sky.
The decision caps months of behind-the-scenes pressure from the U.S. for Karzai to allow a technique already used in countries such as Colombia.
Just last month, John Walters, top U.S. anti-drug official, said that poppies would be sprayed, although he did not say when. Walters, on a visit to Kabul, said Afghanistan could turn into a narco-state unless "giant steps" were made toward eliminating poppies.
However, no top Afghan officials have said publicly that the government would carry out spraying.
Joe Mellott, the spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, said the U.S. still "stands ready to assist the Afghans if they want to use herbicide."
"We always said that the ground-based spraying is a decision for the Afghans to make," he said. "We understand they are going to focus on a robust manual and mechanical program to eradicate poppies this year."
U.S. cites some progress
U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann said this week that Afghanistan has so far eradicated some 1,500 acres of poppies this year — compared to none by the same time last year. Some 407,000 acres of poppies were cultivated in 2006, including 173,000 acres in Helmand province alone, the U.N. says.
U.S. and Afghan officials agree that eradication must be matched with a crackdown on traffickers and programs to help farmers switch to legal crops and get them to market.
Few crops in Afghanistan can be transported far without spoiling or damage because of insecurity and poor roads. By comparison, poppy resin, the main ingredient in heroin, is robust and can keep for years.
Afghan farmers have sometimes turned to violence to protect the precious poppy plants, which are harvested in the spring and whose profits are believed to flow partly to Taliban militants.
Police said two members of an Afghan government eradication team were shot and wounded by unidentified gunmen as they destroyed poppies in western Herat province on Wednesday.