Afghan officials pledge to turn tide on opium production

Kabul, December 12, 2004 (AFP) - Afghanistan's Interior Minister Ali Ahmed Jalali said Friday the country would turn the tide of its burgeoning opium industry within the coming year. Speaking at the end of a two-day counter-narcotics conference in Kabul, Jalali said: "The pledges made in this conference makes us hopeful that yes, poppy cultivation will be eliminated this (coming) year"

The two-day meeting of 500 tribal elders, governors and police was called a day after H.E. President Hamid Karzai was sworn into office. On Thursday the President declared a "holy war" on a drug industry which produces almost 90 percent of the world's opium.

Opium, the key ingredient of heroin, comes from poppies. Afghanistan is now the source of 87 percent of the world's opium and 90 percent of the heroin on the streets of Europe, according to a recent United Nations report.

Poppy cultivation is also the main engine of the country's economic growth, producing 60 percent of GDP (news - web sites) and generating around 2.8 billion dollars and binding together previously feuding local communities, the report said.

The 2.3 million Afghan farmers who grow poppy can make 10 times more money than cultivating legal crops. The problem is exacerbated by irrigation systems which have been shattered by 30 years of war and six years of drought.

"The difficulties that the people facing are very high -- water dams are destroyed. If the United Nations want to help us, they should help us with water," General Khan Mohammad, police chief of Kandahar, told reporters at the conference.

A further problem is that drugs money has reached even the highest levels of government with police chiefs, governors and senior officials all lining their pockets from the trade, counter-narcotics officials have said.

"The list of those government officials who have cultivated poppy in their lands exists. However, no one has been punished for cultivating poppy so far," Interior Minister Jalali said at the meeting.

He said investigations are continuing against officials involved in drug trafficking and that once enough evidence had been amassed they would be arrested.

The United States has earmarked about 780 million dollars to combat the problem over the next year. But only around 120 million will go to farmers and widespread eradication could lead to instability if not managed properly.