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Afghanistan's opium poppy crop skyrockets
WASHINGTON - Afghanistan's opium poppy cultivation has soared, and this year's harvest could be twice as large as last year's near-record crop unless eradication efforts are stepped-up immediately, a State Department official said Thursday.
The heroin business is "almost definitely" filling the coffers of the Taliban and Hizb-I Islami Gulbuddin, another Afghan extremist group linked to Osama bin Laden, and "possibly" enriching al-Qaida fighters as well, said Robert L. Charles, assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs.
In rare but carefully muted criticism of America's top ally, Charles said British authorities had not done enough to eradicate poppies in their sector in southern Afghanistan. He warned that failure to stop the bumper harvest, which has already begun in some areas due to unusually warm weather, would have devastating consequences not only for the global drug trade but also for Afghan democracy.
"This is crunch time in Afghanistan," Charles told a congressional panel. "The first crop is coming very rapidly. ... We will pay a price later if we don't act right now."
The Department of Defense also must do more to crack down on drug production in Afghanistan, said Rep. Mark E. Souder, R-Ind., chairman of the Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources Subcommittee of the House Government Reform Committee.
"The American people aren't pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan to watch it turn into a heroin poppy nation ... and an undemocratic narco terrorist-controlled state," Souder said.
Ninety percent of the heroin on European streets comes from Afghan poppies, while only 7 percent to 10 percent of the heroin in the United States is believed to originate there. But Souder noted that 20,000 Americans die per year from illegal drug use, compared with the 3,000 who died as a result of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Charles said cutting the opium flow is central to fighting terrorism and preventing drug traffickers from undermining the fledgling Afghan democracy.
"Just as you cannot build a castle ... on sand, you cannot build a democracy that will last any amount of time on heroin," Charles said.
Charles' statements came a day after Afghan officials, at a donors' conference in Berlin, pleaded for more international help to stop drug production. President Hamid Karzai warned that drugs were "undermining the very existence of the Afghan state."
The congressional hearing Thursday was hastily scheduled after the United Nations and the Afghan government released a gloomy assessment Wednesday on Afghan opium. The report found that farmers planted poppies on a larger scale than in 2003, when opium production was the second-highest on record and brought Afghanistan an estimated $2.3 billion -- half the country's legitimate GDP. In some areas, up to 80 percent of families were believed to have planted poppies.
As of February, "there were generally no reports of eradication activities," and some farmers said they would fight to protect their poppy fields, the United Nations said.
Charles praised Britain as an ally and said there was "no daylight" between top U.S. and U.K. leaders on Afghan drug policy. But Charles said that lower-level British officials are not being aggressive enough in eradication.
A British official downplayed any rift, saying the British have been pushing eradication as fast as possible, but noted that the effort must be sustainable.