Peter Oborne

A victory for drug-pushers

Opium production in Afghanistan is booming: Peter Oborne and Lucy Morgan Edwards on how the government has failed to wipe out the trade

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This week Tony Blair was warned to brace himself for another huge increase in opium production in Afghanistan. Analysis of a harrowing United Nations report showed that the situation was catastrophically out of control. Inspectors surveyed 134 districts. They learnt that some 23 were planning to plant poppies for the first time in 2003, while another 50 were expecting to increase production. There were some successes for Afghan government-led attempts at elimination. In 28 districts, poppy eradication schemes had worked and production was falling. But these falls were minor compared with rises elsewhere.

The report simply confirmed what UN officials have been saying privately for months. The Afghanistan poppy is on course for a massive harvest, bigger even than last year's bumper crop and perhaps set for an all-time record. This year's rise in production will have horrifying consequences. It means that the British street will be flooded with fresh supplies of cheap heroin manufactured from Afghan poppies. It means huge profits for the criminal mafia which runs this sordid trade, and has – as Tony Blair has repeatedly insisted – provable links with al-Qa'eda and other terrorist groups. And it means huge embarrassment for the British government which, back in October 2001, cited Taleban poppy-growing as the major reason, alongside the threat of terrorism, for the invasion of Afghanistan.

Whether the war has done anything to keep terrorism in check remains an open question. But there is no doubt about the prodigious rise of poppy production in Afghanistan since 2001. The government's predicament is strikingly similar to the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, in the sense that it undermines the case for war in the first place.

Page 77 of this year's departmental report from the Foreign Office, published only last week, contains the following remarkable passage: 'The fall of the Taleban provided a unique opportunity to cut off one of the main sources of supply of heroin to the UK. Around 90 per cent of the heroin in the UK originates in Afghanistan.

'The Foreign Office has pledged to contribute to the reduction of opium cultivation in Afghanistan by 70 per cent in five years with complete elimination in ten years.'

Almost everything about this FCO statement, apart from the bald fact that the bulk of British heroin is imported from Afghanistan, is a nonsense. Far from leading to a cut-off in supply, the defeat of the Taleban has led directly to the arrival of tons of cut-price heroin on British streets.

The pledge to reduce opium cultivation by 70 per cent over five years was one of the public service agreements forced on the Foreign Office by Gordon Brown during the summer 2002 spending-round. The Chancellor insisted that the FCO 'reduce international crime, drugs and people-trafficking affecting the UK measured by Whitehall wide targets'. Like so many of the Chancellor's targets, these bore such a tenuous relation to reality that it is tempting to assume that he was on drugs when he set them. Rather than the 70 per cent fall in production that Whitehall officials fondly hope for, Afghanistan opium production has surged an astonishing 1,000 per cent since the end of the war, and is set to rise much further.

Two factors are behind this disastrous rise in production. The first is the overall failure of policy in Afghanistan since the end of the war just before Christmas 2001. Though Tony Blair made his famous pledge 'not to desert the Afghan people' in the aftermath of war, in practice the West has more or less done just that. This failure operates on two levels. The first is the lack of generosity with hard cash. Though the $5 billion offered in the donors' conference at Tokyo early last year sounds significant, in practice it was a negligible sum, much of it sucked up in emergency humanitarian relief in the early months following the war. It amounts to $42 per Afghan over the next five years. In Kosovo and Bosnia, the West offered around $300 per head throughout the post-conflict period. The amount offered is so small that there is no money forthcoming for the major infrastructure projects that might lift the country out of the state of mediaeval squalor it has been reduced to by war. To give just one example of what Western meanness means in practice, barely $300 million has been made available for roads – the same as the United States has spent on fortifying its new embassy in Kabul, and barely enough to pave 800 miles of Afghan highway.

This catastrophic lack of financial generosity has been compounded by the West's refusal to make a meaningful security commitment. In the post-conflict period in the Balkans, we supplied one peacekeeper for every 60 Bosnians. Today there is just one member of the International Security Assistance Force for every 5,300 Afghans. This twin failure of economic muscle and military nerve means that a yawning power vacuum has emerged outside Kabul: it has been eagerly filled by commanders and warlords owing at best nominal allegiance to President Karzai's central government. Every few months Karzai issues a fresh edict banning poppy cultivation, but very few farmers take any notice.

This general failure of Western policy has been compounded by a specifically British disaster. In the immediate aftermath of the war, Tony Blair successfully insisted that Britain should be given overall responsibility for the Afghan drugs-elimination programme. British diplomats say that, having secured the lead role for the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister then took 'an intense personal interest' in devising a scheme to bribe Afghan farmers to give up poppy-growing.

Indeed, Tony Blair liked this idea so much that he horrified officials by leaking it prematurely to the Sunday Mirror in March 2002. He told the paper that the scheme 'is about persuading the local population with incentives to grow other things. With a relatively small commitment from us, we can hopefully curb the flow of hard drugs into Europe and on to our streets.'

The Sunday Mirror splashed this prime-ministerial initiative all over its front page, and it was not long before other government ministers joined in what soon turned into a very premature celebration. The Foreign Office minister Denis MacShane predictably was keen to follow Tony Blair's lead. He informed MPs in May 2002 that 'the very good news about the opium-poppy eradication programme shows that farmers are ready to turn away from opium-poppy production, and from drugs barons and drug traffickers, to build new lives for themselves and their families with the help of further investment'.

But it is now clear that MacShane and the Prime Minister had both been spouting rubbish. Far from farmers turning away from poppy production, 2002 saw much the largest year-on-year increase in Afghan history. Last month we visited the Jalalabad region of eastern Pakistan. The evidence of the failure of the British scheme was all around us. Poppies were being grown as far as the eye could see.

Even President Karzai has disowned the British-led scheme. He bleakly told us, when we interviewed him back in Kabul, that it had all been a 'mistake'. More devastating still, the President added that, far from diminishing poppy production, it had perversely increased it. 'Paying people that had grown poppies,' the President informed us, 'encouraged lots of other farmers to think, "Well, if they're going to pay us, why not grow it too?"'

But it was not simply the case that the scheme itself was mistaken. It became plain, as we drove round the poppy fields, that its execution had been hopelessly flawed as well. One farmer, standing proudly in his ripening poppy field in Chaparhar province under the shadow of the Tora Bora mountains, told us how last year he had allowed his poppy harvest to be destroyed. He had been promised $350 a jerib (about one-fifth of a hectare) under the terms of the British-led scheme. But he felt betrayed because no money ever arrived, which was why he was growing again this year. We had to break off that interview in a hurry. Some of the villagers gained the impression that we were part of an official poppy-monitoring programme and rushed back to their homes to get their guns. Armed resistance to government-led poppy eradication squads is commonplace throughout Afghanistan.

Other landowners complained that the scheme had been incompetently administered. Haji Daoud, a wealthy local landowner, told us how the money had started to run out. As a result, officials started to offer less than the $350 a jerib originally agreed. He claimed that in the villages around Surkh Rud the amount offered had fallen to $90, while in the Chaparhar district farmers had been offered $40, a sum they had not surprisingly rejected.

Damaging rifts and feuds had been created among the villagers by the offer of these insultingly different amounts. Daoud told us that a British diplomat had been still trying to peddle the doomed compensation scheme in the Jalalabad area three weeks earlier, but claimed that the money was causing fresh local anger. 'This year,' he said, 'they plant 95 per cent more because they said, "Last year nobody give us the money."' Everywhere the British were held in contempt because of the compensation scheme. Some farmers accuse the British of breaking their promises.

The worst problem was fraud. Bariolai Arsalai, who runs drugs-awareness seminars with the United Nations, told us how land surveyors and local commanders had colluded to over-declare their land. British diplomats admit that fraud has taken place: they say there was little they could do to monitor the scheme because of security difficulties. This has meant that the surveying of the land, and the distribution of the cash, has for the most part been subcontracted to local NGOs.

United Nations officials privately told us that they advised against the British-inspired scheme – said by one source to have been the brainchild of the then drugs 'tsar' Keith Hellawell – when it was mooted 18 months ago. We were told that Bernard Frahi, the UN drugs control programme representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan, had been sceptical. But British officials, spurred on by Downing Street, went ahead anyway. Some £21 million of British taxpayers' money, as well as an estimated further £20 million of international money, was plunged into the doomed venture. The Foreign Office today declines to take the blame, saying that it was 'an Afghan programme administered by the Afghan authorities'.

In Kabul European diplomats ridicule the British. One ambassador from a major European country says contemptuously that we have been reduced to a 'co-ordination role'. Last week France called a summit in Paris to address the surge in opium production. The meeting was a humiliation for the British, and some claim it is the effective end of our leading role.

But someone has got to address the problem. After all, as Tony Blair told MPs last January, 'The expression "narcoterrorism" describes the link between drugs and terrorism, and it is a very active link.'

Peter Oborne's documentary on the reconstruction of Afghanistan, Here's One We Invaded Earlier, directed by Paul Yule and co-produced by Lucy Morgan Edwards, will be shown on Channel 4 at 8 p.m. on Saturday 31 May.