U.S. Debating Payoffs to Afghan Poppy Growers

WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is considering whether to pay off Afghan farmers to stop them from growing heroin poppies on contract for the Taliban, senior officials said Tuesday.

Paying farmers not to plant poppy would essentially supplant U.S. cash for the fees paid up front by the Taliban to its contract farmers. The idea seems to follow logically from the administration's policy of protecting Afghan civilians and eroding support for the insurgency, but skeptics say it won't work because farmers would take the money and plant poppies anyway.

No decision has been made on whether to offer the payments, and time is short since some planting will be done in the fall.

The U.S. wants to prevent an expansion of poppy cultivation and profit-taking by the Taliban as additional U.S. forces push deep into areas of southern Afghanistan where poppy is the most lucrative crop and where the Taliban insurgency is strongest, a senior defense official said.

The United States and other partners are already encouraging Afghan farmers to grow alternative crops such as wheat, pomegranates or nuts, especially in the volatile southern provinces.

Those efforts aren't prevented widespread poppy cultivation. The Taliban offers a guaranteed market and money up front.

The payouts would be administered by civilians, presumably under State Department purview.

Two administration officials said there is some civilian resistance to entwining the United States in the distasteful business of drug production, and a suspicion that farmers would play a double game.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the policy is under review.

Under the current policy, the United States insists that Afghan authorities crack down on poppy production and the official corruption that often goes with it, but U.S. soldiers and civilians generally adopt a laissez faire approach to individual farmers.

The Obama administration is all but abandoning the Bush administration practice of destroying poppy crops in the field, having concluded that doing so only drove farmers into the arms of the Taliban.

The Taliban has set up a sophisticated business in Helmand province and some other areas, in which farmers are paid ahead of time to be poppy sharecroppers, and the Taliban takes care of getting the crop to market.

Afghanistan is the world's leading source of opium, cultivating 93 percent of the world's heroin-producing poppy crop. While opium cultivation dropped 19 percent last year, it remains concentrated in the south. The United Nations estimates that opium poppies earned insurgents an estimated $50 million to $70 million last year.