Afghanistan: Most provinces ‘opium free’ says US official
Rome, 19 March(AKI) – A top US official fighting for drug crop eradication in Afghanistan claims that most of the country is on its way to being opium free.
“The good news is that geographically, most of Afghanistan is now going poppy free,” said Tom Schweich, coordinator of counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan in an interview with Adnkronos International (AKI).
“We estimate that by the end of this growing season (May and June), 26 out of 34 Afghan provinces will either have no poppy or very low poppy,” said Schweich.
However, Schweich (photo) says that “in five or so southern provinces where there is a lot of Taliban activity there seems to be a very serious poppy growing problem.”
While visiting Rome, Schweich met with Italian law enforcement authorities to discuss the issue of justice reform in Afghanistan as well as the problem of heroin and cocaine in the country.
Schweich told AKI that he met with Italian prosecutor Piero Grasso and discussed cooperation schemes to disrupt international organised crime
According to Schweich, half of all illegal opium ends up in Iran, while the rest is equally divided between bordering countries.
Schweich also talks about the level of coordination with Afghanistan’s neighbours to eradicate the trafficking and crop cultivation and mentions having a “close collaborative relationship” with Pakistan.
In regards to Iran, Schweich had some harsher words:
“The United States does not have [diplomatic] relations with Iran, so we do not coordinate with them.”
“We have serious problems with the Iranians,” he said to AKI.
On a possible links between poppy growing and the insurgency, Schweich says that indeed “there is a close link and is becoming closer”, as well as the fact that profits from the poppy crop “are funding the insurgency.”
Moreover, Schweich no longer sees poppy cultivation associated with poverty like it was a few years ago.
When asked about the strategy used in Afghanistan to rid the country of poppy growing, Schweich said: “We want to make sure the population sees specific development assistance rewards for having done so.”
“I think we need a tough programme of taking out high value targets and eradicating the fields of those farmers who are wealthy and well connected to show them there are law enforcement capabilities in those areas,” said Schweich.
Schweich also said that for 2008, he does not expect an increase in poppy production, “but I suspect it will be the same or maybe lower than last year.”
Schweich also commented on an Italian proposal to use poppy cultivation for legal uses and why the proposal did not work.
“We analysed that proposal very carefully,” he told AKI.
“We found that the price of legal opium is way below the price of illegal opium,”
As a result, any buyout scheme would have to be heavily subsidised.
“So there is no incentive to switch to a legal opium scheme when the price is so low for legal opium.”
A buyout would then cost billions of dollars per year as more farmers began growing.
Despite the difficulties encountered, Schweich remains hopeful and calls on the international community to remain united.
“We are cautiously optimistic. The signs in the north and east [of Afghanistan] are good and is important that the international community remain unified on the need to have a balance of ‘carrots and sticks’ and get rid of it [opium cultivations].”