UK soldiers killed in poppy growing area of Afghanistan [video report]

By Tom Coghlan

Two British soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, as Western officials in the country admitted yesterday that despite a US$1 billion ($1.6 billion) a year campaign to curb it the country is facing its largest ever poppy harvest.

The new British deaths, the fourth and fifth in three weeks, come as Western military commanders and counter-narcotics officials appear increasingly at odds over how to approach the drugs problem in the south of the country, with military commanders fearful that drug eradication is acting as a recruiting sergeant for the Taleban.

"The trends indicate that the area of cultivation will be considerably higher than in 2004," said a representative of the United Nations office on Drugs and Crime, which will publish its annual report of the Afghan opium harvest in August.

2004 saw the largest ever area of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan of around 130,000 hectares.

Poor growing conditions that year mean that this year's harvest, with better conditions across the country, will produce the largest tonnage of opium ever.

Afghanistan is single-handedly responsible for around 87 per cent of the world's opium and more than 90 per cent of the heroin consumed on British streets.

In 2005 the Karzai government announced a "jihad" on poppy production, backed by the near $1billion international campaign, which is led by Britain.

It produced a 21 per cent drop in the area of cultivation but those gains have now been wiped out.

Around a third of this year's harvest has come from a single province, Helmand, where 3300 British troops are heavily engaged against Taleban rebels.

Some military commanders now argue that eradication operations against poppy cultivation in the south should be suspended for a year or more.

"We may have to say to the farmer we are not yet ready to provide an alternative livelihood," one senior NATO officer told the Independent.

But counter-narcotics officials contend that a suspension of eradication produce a further surge in poppy production and help fund elements with a vested interest in maintaining the current instability.

The Afghan drugs economy is currently valued at US$2.7 billion, equivalent to more than 50 per cent of the legal economy.

By contrast the Afghan government managed to generate legal revenues, outside of foreign aid, totalling only US$330 million last year.

Farmers in the south claim that in the absence of any other economic activity, poppy cultivation and high wages paid by the Taleban to fight for them offer the only sources of income to huge numbers of unemployed young men.

Poppy cultivation, they say, is the only means of wealth creation without capital because the smugglers pay in advance.

In Washington there is increasing pressure for a more radical approach to the drugs problem with the threat of aerial eradication being held up as the ultimate sanction if the softer methods favoured by the British and Afghan governments don't work.

Western sources have told the Independent that US counter-narcotics teams are exploring the possibility of using a form of the defoliant Agent Orange.

The United Nations remains completely opposed to the move.

- INDEPENDENT

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