New tack on Afghan opium

U.S., Britain to spend big to deter fall poppy planting

WASHINGTON – The U.S. and British governments plan to spend millions of dollars over the next two months to try to persuade Afghan farmers not to plant opium poppy, by far the country’s most profitable cash crop and a major source of Taliban funding and official corruption.

By selling wheat seeds and fruit saplings to farmers at token prices, offering cheap credit, and paying poppy-farm laborers to work on roads and irrigation ditches, U.S. and British officials hope to provide alternatives before the planting season begins in early October. Many poppy farmers survive Afghanistan’s harsh winters on loans advanced by drug traffickers and their associates, repaid with the spring harvest.

“We need a way to get money in (farmers’) hands right away,” a senior U.S. military official in Afghanistan said.

The program replaces the Bush administration’s focus on crop eradication, which “wasted hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Destroying the crops succeeded only in “alienat(ing) poor farmers” and “driving people into the hands of the Taliban,” he told reporters last week.

But many previous U.S.-funded crop-substitution programs have failed as well. A similar plan in Colombia, begun in the late 1990s, has barely made a dent in cocaine production, although the country began to stabilize in recent years as its U.S.-trained military adopted new strategies against armed insurgents and civil institutions were strengthened.

Officials maintain that the new Afghan plan differs from unsuccessful “alternative” plans because it is an integral part of a military-development strategy that includes tens of thousands of U.S. troops to keep the Taliban and traffickers at bay while Afghan security forces are being trained. Plans call for hundreds of U.S. and international aid experts to work directly with farmers and local officials until the Afghan government has matured.

“The way (the assistance) is offered is important,” said the senior U.S. military official, one of several who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the program on the record. “We are not providing subsidies … we are not just handing out cash.” Farmers will have a “stake” in the program, he said, buying vouchers for seeds and fertilizers for about 10 percent of their value. Cash will be distributed only as credit or for work performed, the official added.

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