Afghanistan Refuses U.S Request to Spray Heroin Fields

Afghanistan's heroin-producing poppies will not be sprayed with herbicide this year despite a record crop in 2006 and U.S. pressure to allow the drug-fighting tactic, officials said Thursday.

President Hamid Karzai's cabinet decided Sunday to hold off on using chemicals for now, said Said Mohammad Azam, spokesman for Afghanistan's Ministry of Counter Narcotics.

"There will be no ground spraying this year," Azam told The Associated Press.

Azam said there would be an increased effort to destroy poppy crops with "traditional" techniques — typically sending teams of laborers into fields to batter down or plow in the plants before they can be harvested.

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"If it works, that is fine," Azam said. "If it does not, next year ground spraying will be in the list of options."

Fueled by the Taliban, a powerful drug mafia and the need for a profitable crop that can overcome drought, opium production from poppies in Afghanistan last year rose 49 percent to 6,700 tons — enough to make about 670 tons of heroin. That's more than 90 percent of the world's supply and more than the world's addicts consume in a year.

Karzai told foreign and Afghan officials this week that if Afghanistan's poppy crop is not reduced this year he would allow spraying in 2008, according to a Western official who requested anonymity because of the matter's sensitivity.

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He had been pressured by several senior members of his government not to allow spraying, the Western official said.

Several Afghan officials on Thursday said herbicides pose too big a risk of contaminating water, killing produce and harming local residents. Any chemicals would have been spread at ground level, not by planes.

The decision caps months of behind-the-scenes pressure from the U.S. for Karzai to allow a technique already used in countries such as Colombia, and comes one month after the top U.S. anti-drug official said that Afghanistan would spray poppies.

John Walters, the director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, said last month that that poppies would be sprayed, although he did not say when. Walters, on a visit to Kabul, said Afghanistan could turn into a narco-state unless "giant steps" were made toward eliminating poppies.

However, no top Afghan officials have said publicly that the government would carry out spraying.

Joe Mellott, the spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, said the U.S. still "stands ready to assist the Afghans if they want to use herbicide."

"We always said that the ground-based spraying is a decision for the Afghans to make," he said. "We understand they are going to focus on a robust manual and mechanical program to eradicate poppies this year."

Underscoring Afghans' unease with herbicide, Asadullah Wafa, the governor of Helmand province, said herbicides negatively affect crops and animals. More poppy is grown in Helmand than anywhere else in the world.

"There is another way to eradicate, like launching operations through all the districts, and I hope the international community will give us tractors and provide more troops to destroy poppies," Wafa said.

Walters, during his December visit, emphasized to Afghan media members that a common herbicide — sold commercially as Roundup in the United States — would be used and was safe for other crops and animals.

U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann said this week that Afghanistan already has eradicated nearly 1,500 acres of poppies this year — compared to none during the same period last year. U.S. and Afghan officials agree that eradication must be matched with a crackdown on traffickers and programs to help farmers switch to legal crops.

"We have done an enormous amount of alternative livelihood, but you are not going to have a full meaning of alternatives until we build a rural economy and until you can move a crop to the market," Neumann said.

Few crops in Afghanistan can be transported far without spoiling or damage. By comparison, poppy resin, the main ingredient in heroin, is robust and can keep for years.

Afghan farmers have sometimes turned to violence to protect the precious poppy plants, whose profits are believed to flow partly to Taliban militants.

Police said two members of an Afghan government eradication team were shot and wounded by unidentified gunmen as they destroyed poppies in western Herat province on Wednesday.