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Opium Trade Booms In 'Basket-Case' Afghanistan By Colin Brown Deputy Political Editor and Andrew Clennell The Telegraph - UK 7-28-4
The opium harvest in Afghanistan this year will be one of the biggest on record, the Foreign Office said yesterday, and it has triggered a flood of heroin on Britain's streets.
The revelation will prove highly embarrassing for Tony Blair, who cited cutting the supply of heroin as one of the main reasons for the invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, in addition to removing the Taliban regime and rooting out al-Qa'ida from the training camps run by Osama bin Laden.
The Taliban had cracked down on drugs cultivators but the regime's fall led to an increase in production and this year's harvest will be the largest since the invasion.
Health workers warned yesterday that the consequences of the rise were already evident: cheaper, better quality heroin was arriving in Britain, luring thousands more youngsters into addiction than ever before.
At the time of the invasion, Mr Blair said: "We act because the al-Qa'ida network and the Taliban regime are funded in large parts on the drugs trade 90 per cent of all heroin sold in Britain originates from Afghanistan. Stopping that trade is directly in our interests."
He also told the Labour Party conference on 2 October: "The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets. That is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy."
The Foreign Office revelation about the heroin crop, on the eve of the publication of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee's long-awaited report on Afghanistan, underscores the failure to meet a crucial policy objective. It is a severe embarrassment to the Prime Minister, who has long faced criticism over his professed grounds for war in the subsequent invasion of Iraq.
The Foreign Affairs Select Committee will record its fears over the rising heroin production tomorrow. As The Independent reported two months ago, members of the committee returned from a fact-finding mission to the country dismayed at what they had witnessed. Eric Illsley, a Labour member of the select committee, described Afghanistan as "a basket case".
Members believe that large areas of Afghanistan are back under the rule of warlords, controlling militias of up to 10,000 men, which are paid for by the profits of the illegal heroin trade.
MPs from all sides last night accused the Government of complacency and said the Prime Minister was betraying his clear promises to reduce opium production after the invasion of Afghanistan.
David Davis, the shadow Home Secretary, said: "British youngsters are dying for Blair's incompetence. If we cannot do the job, we should not have undertaken the task.''
David Chidgey, a Liberal Democrat MP and a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said: "This is scandalous. This is a key fact that we picked up on our visit to Afghanistan.
"Nato is not coming across with the resources it promised. It is a great concern to me that the poppy harvest has increased. They must find a way of persuading the farmers to switch back to wheat or cereal, but they earn five times as much by growing the poppy."
Details of the rise in opium production emerged in a parliamentary written reply to the Labour MP Harry Cohen from the Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell.
Mr Rammell said: "The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) is in the process of assessing the 2004 harvest in conjunction with the Afghan government. Its report will be published in the autumn. We expect to see a rise in levels of cultivation.
"This is unwelcome but experience of counter-narcotics policies in Pakistan and Thailand, which both had much lower initial levels of production and were more stable countries, shows that cultivation tends to increase before declining."
Mr Cohen said: "The rise in cultivation and production of opium poppies in Afghanistan has horrendous portents for us in the UK bearing in mind the PM's statement that 90 per cent of heroin sold on British streets comes from Afghanistan.
"The claim that cultivation tends to increase before declining gives no comfort and ... is not necessarily the case. It seems to me a hope more akin to peeing in the wind."
Sue Clark, manager of the team that tackles substance abuse for the London homeless charity, St Mungo's, said last night: "Our concern is that more drugs on the streets will create more problems for the vulnerable people who we work with daily.
"It makes our job to get them further away from the streets and to get them help much harder."
David Chater, a spokesman for the social care charity Turning Point, said an increase in poppy production could mean lower heroin prices and make life tougher for people trying to treat addicts.
"From a treatment point of view it's obviously a bad thing if much more heroin is available," he said.
"Both police activities and treatment programmes have to be going well to make an impact. The Government's invested quite a lot in the treatment side, [but] this is going to pose problems for them on the supply side, the police activity side."
In June, Nato agreed to deploy an extra 1,200 troops to Afghanistan after its summit in Istanbul. The troops were deployed to help provide security for the forthcoming elections in September.
The country is struggling to maintain a democratic veneer, amid sporadic violence, but meanwhile, the strength of the heroin trade shows no sign of being cut back.