Facing opposition from Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the United States has set aside plans to use spray planes to fumigate opium crops in Afghanistan, the world’s largest drug producing country.
Karzai’s opposition to spraying has frustrated some U.S. officials who doubt that the vast amount of opium produced in Afghanistan can be significantly reduced without spraying. Opium is the raw material for heroin.
The United Nations says Afghanistan’s drug trade has funded terrorists. Some U.S. officials fear it could ultimately lead to the kind of lawlessness that allowed al-Qaida to use Afghanistan as a haven before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Karzai, a close ally of the United States, has called for a “holy war” against Afghanistan’s drug business, but believes aerial spraying could harm innocent villagers. U.S. officials say drug spraying is safe.
The State Department’s top anti-drug official, Robert Charles, said Karzai has indicated that he might allow aerial spraying if other eradication and interdiction strategies fail.
“What he essentially signaled was that while that may become necessary, he wants to begin with another sequence,” Charles said in an interview.
Afghan officials say eradication efforts are already showing results, and forecast a nationwide drop of 30 percent to 70 percent in this year’s crop.
The State Department had anticipated an aerial spraying campaign when it notified Congress in December of how it planned to spend $312.5 million of $774 million budgeted counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan this year. Charles said about $152 million of the $312.5 million could have been used for aerial spray operations.
The department will soon present Congress with a revised spending plan that doesn’t include aerial eradication, Charles said. Instead, it will emphasize manual eradication, alternative crop programs, law enforcement targeting laboratories and warehouses, and public information.
The chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., sent a letter last week to Secretary of State-designate Condoleezza Rice urging no reduction in the $312.5 million figure.
In a statement Tuesday, Hyde said until Karzai’s government “signals its support for aerial spraying of illicit crops, we need a very robust and effective interdiction strategy to go after the heroin labs and the Afghan narco-terrorist kingpins.”
Charles said spending “will generally be in the same neighborhood. I don’t think anyone has a sense of reduced commitment.”
In her Senate confirmation hearing last week, Rice indicated U.S. officials are still interested in aerial eradication. “At this point, manual is all that we can do, but we’ll see whether aerial is needed and what we can do in that regard,” she said.
The United Nations estimated that 323,700 acres in Afghanistan were dedicated to opium last year. That marks a 64 percent increase over the figure for 2003. The U.S. government’s estimate was even higher: 5.1 million acres, a 239 percent increase over its 2003 figure.
The United Nations says Afghanistan produced nearly 90 percent of the world’s opium and the drug accounted for more than 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
Relatively little Afghan opium, though, reaches the United States, where Colombia has been the largest source of heroin and cocaine.
U.S. officials credit an aerial eradication program in Colombia, funded by the United States, with reducing cultivation of opium and coca, the raw material for cocaine. That spraying program has the support of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.