Wednesday June 14, 2006
Afghan province to provide one-third of world's heroin
· Poppy harvest to double in British-patrolled area
· £1.1bn from west since 2001 fails to stop trade
Declan Walsh in Kabul
A British patrol passes opium poppies in the Helmand province of southern Afghanistan. Photo: John Moore/Getty
The Afghanistan province being patrolled by British troops will produce at least a third of the world's heroin this year, according to drug experts who are forecasting a record harvest that will be an embarrassment for the western-funded war on narcotics.
British officials are bracing themselves for the result of an annual UN poppy survey due later this summer. Early indications show an increase on Helmand's 1999 record of 45,000 hectares (112,500 acres) and a near-doubling of last year's crop.
"It's going to be massive," said one British drugs official. "My guess is it's going to be the biggest ever."
Helmand's bumper harvest highlights the failure of western counter-narcotics efforts that have cost at least $2bn (£1.1bn) since 2001. It could undo progress made last year, when poppy cultivation dropped 21% after a call for a "jihad" on drugs by the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai.
It spells particularly bad news for Britain, which is leading the anti-narcotics campaign and has deployed 3,300 soldiers to the lawless province. Afghanistan produces almost 90% of the world's heroin, with about a third coming from Helmand. Drug experts say the province is as central to Afghanistan's illegal economy as California is to America's legal one. "If you took Helmand out of the picture, Afghanistan would fall from the world's top poppy grower to second or third place," said one US official.
British and American officials cannot resort to the tactics of the Taliban, which slashed poppy cultivation in 2001 by threatening to shoot farmers. But western efforts using less violent methods, such as encouraging farmers to grow legal crops, have proved fruitless.
The smuggling kingpins who control the £1.5bn trade have become rich, powerful and apparently untouchable. "Until Karzai arrests and jails one big dealer, people will not believe the central government is behind this drive," said a former American anti-narcotics contractor.
The most damaging allegations surround the minister charged with counter-narcotics, Muhammad Daud. Several western officials claim General Daud, a former Tajik warlord, has historical and family links to smuggling.
He denies the allegations. "It is very shameful for a big country with such a good reputation to make allegations like this," he said.
American congressmen are increasing the pressure to start poppy eradication with crop-spraying planes - a controversial tactic opposed by British and Afghan officials, who say it would be disastrous. "It could drive farmers into the hands of the insurgents," said one.
Britain's main enemy, the Taliban, has developed close links to drugs smugglers. On Sunday a British soldier, named as Captain Jim Philippson, became the first combat fatality in Helmand after a battle with suspected Taliban forces.