Afghanistan: Karzai just says no —to glyphosate

The Pentagon recently posed Colombia as a “good model” for the war on opium in Afghanistan. But Hamid Karzai, to his credit, is displaying greater concern for the health of his own land and people than top US Latin American ally Alvaro Uribe. From Reuters, Jan. 26:

KABUL, Afghanistan – Rebuffing months of U.S. pressure, Afghan President Hamid Karzai decided against a Colombia-style program to spray this country’s heroin-producing poppies after the Cabinet worried herbicide would hurt legitimate crops, animals and humans, officials said Thursday.

The decision, reportedly made Sunday, dashes U.S. hopes for mounting a campaign using ground sprayers to poison poppy plants to help combat Afghanistan’s opium trade after a record crop in 2006.

Karzai instead “made a very strong commitment” to lead other eradication efforts this year and said if that didn’t cut production 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 this year’s effort will rely on “traditional techniques” – sending laborers into fields to trample or plow under opium poppies before they can be harvested. A similar campaign during 2006 failed.

Fueled by the Taliban, a powerful drug mafia and poor farmers’ 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 is 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 as it struggles with stepped-up attacks by insurgents loyal to the former Taliban regime.

Top Cabinet members – including the agriculture, defense and rural redevelopment ministers – pressured Karzai to reject the spraying plan, 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.

Afghan farmers have sometimes turned to violence to protect poppy plants, which are harvested in the spring and whose profits are believed to flow partly to Taliban militants. Police said two eradication workers were wounded by gunmen Wednesday in western Herat province.

“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.”

U.S. officials have said the herbicide in question – glyphosate, sold as Roundup in the United States – is safe. It would have been applied by ground spraying rather than planes to allay Afghan fears of chemicals falling from the sky.

U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann said this week that Afghanistan has eradicated 1,483 acres of poppies so far this year – compared to none by the same time last year.

Still, that’s only a fraction of the 407,000 acres of poppies that were cultivated in 2006, including 173,000 acres in Helmand province alone, according to U.N. figures.

U.S. and Afghan officials agree eradication must be matched with a crackdown on traffickers as well as programs to help farmers switch to legal crops and get their produce to market. Few Afghan crops can be transported far without spoiling or damage because of insecurity and poor roads. By comparison, poppy resin, the main ingredient in heroin, can keep for years.

Karzai’s decision capped months of behind-the-scenes pressure to allow spraying like that already used in countries such as Colombia, where coca plants supply much of world’s cocaine.

Just last month, John Walters, top U.S. anti-drug official, said Afgfhan poppies would be sprayed, although he did not say when. Walters, on a visit to Kabul, warned that Afghanistan could turn into a narco-state unless “giant steps” were made toward eliminating poppies.

However, no top Afghan officials had said publicly the government would carry out spraying.

Joe Mellott, 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.”

See our last post on Afghanistan.