US announces big shift in Afghanistan drug policy

The U.S. is shifting its strategy against Afghanistan's drug trade, phasing out funding for opium eradication while boosting efforts to fight trafficking and promote alternate crops, the U.S. envoy for Afghanistan said Saturday, Associated Press reported.

The aim of the new policy: to deprive the Taliban of the tens of millions of dollars in drug revenues that are fueling its insurgency.

The U.S. envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, told the Associated Press that poppy eradication - for years a cornerstone of U.S. and U.N. drug trafficking efforts in the country - was not working and was only driving Afghan farmers into the hands of the Taliban.

"Eradication is a waste of money," Holbrooke said on the sidelines of a Group of Eight foreign ministers' meeting on Afghanistan, during which he briefed regional representatives on the new policy.

"It might destroy some acreage, but it didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban. So we're going to phase out eradication," he said. The Afghan foreign minister also attended the G-8 meeting.

Eradication efforts were seen as inefficient because too little was being destroyed at too high a cost, U.N. drug chief Antonio Maria Costa told the AP.

The old policy was also deeply unpopular among powerless small-scale farmers, who often were targeted in the eradication efforts.

Afghanistan is the world's leading source of opium, cultivating 93 percent of the world's heroin-producing crop. While opium cultivation dropped 19 percent last year, it remains concentrated in Afghanistan's southern provinces where the Taliban is strongest and last year earned insurgents an estimated $50 million to $70 million, according to the U.N. drug office.

While there was no immediate comment from Kabul on Saturday, the U.S. policy shift was likely to be welcomed by Afghanistan's government. Officials eradicating poppies have often been attacked by militants. Afghan citizens, many of whom rely on farming for sustenance and income, would also invite new agricultural programs.

The new policy calls for assisting farmers who abandon poppy cultivation. Holbrooke said the international community wasn't trying to target Afghan farmers, just the Taliban militants who buy their crops.

"The farmers are not our enemy, they're just growing a crop to make a living," he said. "It's the drug system. So the U.S. policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban."

While Holbrooke did not provide the AP with a dollar figure for the new U.S. commitment, he told the G-8 ministers that Washington was increasing its funding for agricultural assistance from tens of millions of dollars a year to hundreds of millions of dollars, said Foreign Minister Franco Frattini of Italy, the current G-8 president.

"We're essentially phasing out our support for crop eradication and using the money to work on interdiction, rule of law, alternate crops," Holbrooke told the AP.

The policy also calls for coordinating a crackdown on drug trafficking across Afghanistan's border before the heroin reaches addicts in Europe, Russia and Iran.

In recent months, U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan have begun attacking drug labs and opium storage sites in an effort to deprive the Taliban of drug profits.

The G-8 foreign ministers "strongly appreciated" the policy shift, Frattini said. Costa, of the U.N., said the new focus "seems to be the winning strategy, and I'm glad that all of this has received support from the G-8 ministers."

The G-8 ministers along with Afghan counterpart Rangin Dadfar Spanta issued a statement at the end of their three-day summit Saturday saying it was urgent to find alternatives for farming communities where "narco-trafficking and extremism are endemic."

They said sustainable farming was key to Afghanistan's and Pakistan's future in that it would boost incomes, create jobs, improve rural development and lower regional tensions.

"Food insecurity and chronic poverty are root causes of civil instability and forced migration," the statement said.

The ministers also called for a regional intelligence network to prevent opium from leaving Afghanistan and the chemical precursors needed to turn it into heroin from getting in.

Costa told the G-8 meeting that the recent dip in cultivation was "vulnerable to relapse" without helping farmers with new crops and boosting law enforcement operations to disrupt drug markets, production labs and convoys.

According to a U.N. report this week, opium eradication reached a high in 2003, after the Taliban were ousted from power, with over 21,000 hectares (51,900 acres) destroyed. In 2008, only 5,480 hectares (13,500 acres) were cut down, compared with 19,047 hectares (47,000 acres) in 2007.

Costa said Afghan opium would kill 100,000 people this year in the parts of world where demand for heroin is highest: Europe, Russia and West Asia.

To fight it, he said major powers had to expand their counter-drug efforts to neighboring Pakistan as well as Iran, where half the 7,000 tons of exported Afghan opium transits, "causing the highest addiction rate in the world."

"Facing a grave health epidemic, Iran should be given the chance to engage in common efforts to combat illicit trafficking," he said.

Iran had been invited to attend the G-8 meeting on Afghanistan, because anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan have been identified as a key area where the United States and Iran can work together - part of President Barack Obama's outreach effort.

But Italy withdrew the invitation after Iran failed to respond and after its bloody postelection crackdown on protesters, which has sparked international condemnation.

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