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Russia urges U.S. to destroy Afghan opium crop

Russia is pressing the White House to to step up efforts to destroy Afghan poppy cultivation, which Moscow says is partly to blame for a devastating drug problem at home.
Image: Afghan, opium crop
Police officers from the district of Argu use sticks to destroy a patch of illegally grown poppies in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan on July 16. A government crackdown on poppy cultivation has spelled economic hardship for many communities throughout Afghanistan. Julie Jacobson / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Russia is pressing the White House to resurrect the Bush-era policy of large-scale eradication of poppy fields in Afghanistan, an effort that critics say angered Afghan farmers and rallied support for the Taliban but did little to curb the cultivation of opium.

The Kremlin's counter-narcotics chief, Viktor P. Ivanov, said in an interview published in the daily Izvestia on Wednesday that the U.S. and Russia should work more closely together to stem the rising tide of heroin addiction and prevent extremist organizations from financing attacks with profits from the drug trade.

One of the chief strategies the U.S. and NATO are currently pursuing to curb the multibillion-dollar heroin trade in Afghanistan is to replace the cultivation of opium poppies with grain and fruit crops.

Ivanov said such measures were insufficient.

"It's not enough to offer alternative farming," Ivanov said, according to Izvestia. Instead, he told The New York Times this week, the Obama administration should use the kind of aerial spraying of herbicides the U.S. has employed against the illicit coca crop in Colombia. Cocaine is derived from coca.

"I would call on the United States to use defoliation from the air," Ivanov told the Times. He was on his way to the U.S. on Wednesday to meet with his counterparts there the following day.

Afghanistan provides more than 90 percent of the heroin consumed around the world. Russia and some other states in the former Soviet Union, which lie along Afghan drug smuggling routes, suffer from high addiction rates.

Obama turns away from eradication
The Bush administration had long supported the manual eradication of opium poppy crops in Afghanistan. At one point, it tried to persuade President Hamid Karzai to accept aerial spraying as well and even transferred U.S. Ambassador William Wood from Bogota to Kabul because of his expertise in the issue.

But Karzai opposed aerial spraying on environmental grounds, preferring manual eradication efforts. The U.S., meanwhile, has become increasingly leery of destroying crops at all, fearing that the effort turns farmers into insurgents.

While the Afghan government continues its own manual crop eradication program, the Obama White House has all but abandoned the Bush administration's efforts to destroy Afghanistan's opium harvest.

Instead of eradication, the U.S. is now helping farmers plant alternate crops, destroying drug labs, trying to arrest major traffickers and interdicting shipments.

"Large-scale eradication efforts have not worked to reduce the funding to the Taliban," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Wednesday. He added that destroying crops has also driven farmers who have lost their livelihoods into the "hands of the insurgency."

Aerial spraying
A recent U.S. Senate report labeled the Afghan eradication program "an expensive failure," and special U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke called the practice "a waste of money."

Eradication efforts in 2007 and 2008 destroyed less than 4 percent of the annual crops, according to a U.N. report, which also called eradication a failure.

But Ivanov contends that aerial spraying would work.

At a July conference, Ivanov blamed the failure of the U.S. and NATO counter-narcotics operations on poor tactics, and urged aerial spraying.

"If they used such methods in Afghanistan, all poppy fields there will be completely eradicated in just one year," Ivanov predicted at the time.

That month Ivanov told the business daily Kommersant that the U.S. was reluctant to fight poppy cultivation more forcefully because, he claimed, Washington feared a backlash from powerful drug barons allegedly living in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Some Western counter-narcotics officials have also urged the continuation of eradication programs, saying that even if such efforts destroy only a small fraction of the crop, they can discourage cultivation by raising the risk to farmers of planting poppies.