Trading accusations

The U.S., Britain and Hamid Karzai argue over who is most to blame for the explosive growth in Afghanistan's opium production.

Published May 23, 2005 4:02PM (EDT)

U.S. officials embarrassed Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Sunday on the eve of his meeting with George W. Bush by leaking the contents of a memo that said he was "unwilling to assert strong leadership" in the country's war against heroin production. A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, seen by the New York Times, also said Britain was "substantially responsible" for the failure of a poppy eradication program because it had sent teams to the wrong areas and refused to change targets.

Karzai, who will also meet with Rice while he is in Washington, strongly denied the allegations Sunday, claiming that it is America and Britain that are responsible for the failure of the program. "In parts of the country where the Afghan government took the lead, poppies were destroyed considerably," he told CNN. "So we have done our job. The Afghan people have done our job. The failure is theirs, not ours."

He pointed out that in the areas where the plan had failed, the United States and Britain were in control. "Now the international community must come and provide alternative livelihood to the Afghan people, which they have not done so far. Let us stop this blame."

Karzai also called for tough punishments for those who allegedly abused detainees at Bagram, the main U.S. base in Afghanistan. "We are angry about this and we want justice; we want the people responsible for this behavior punished," he said. However, Karzai said the behavior of the interrogators should not reflect on the U.S. government or its people. "There are bad people everywhere," he said.

The three-page cable sent on May 13 said that provincial officials and village elders had impeded the destruction of poppies and that Afghan officials, including Karzai, had done little to intervene. It said: "Although President Karzai has been well aware of the difficulty in trying to implement an effective ground eradication program, he has been unwilling to assert strong leadership, even in his own province of Kandahar."

The New York Times said it was shown the cable -- drafted by embassy personnel involved in the anti-drug efforts -- by an official alarmed at the slow pace of poppy eradication and the effect it could have on the American-led reconstruction effort in Afghanistan.

A State Department spokeswoman refused to comment Sunday.

Despite the claim about Britain's failings, British officials in Kabul said Sunday that they enjoy an "excellent" relationship with their American counterparts. A senior official said he believed Karzai "remained committed" to the anti-drug fight.

But Britain and American have repeatedly chafed against each other in the Afghan anti-drug effort. The problem springs partly from a disparity of influence and money -- the U.K. officially leads the effort because most of the country's heroin ends up in Europe, but the U.S. has by far the largest budget.

This year the United States announced it would spend $780 million on the campaign -- although Congress has approved just $260 million so far -- while the U.K. budget is $100 million. The U.S. budget boost came after months of whispered criticism from American officials accusing British colleagues of taking a "soft" approach.

Afghanistan's heroin trade has grown explosively since 2001; it now accounts for almost all the world's supply and accounts for 40 percent of the Afghan economy.

In answer British officials said they were focusing on "alternative livelihoods" -- rural support such as wells, roads and irrigation schemes -- intended to wean farmers off opium, which pays at least 10 times more than other crops.

The United States has advocated faster but more controversial solutions, with mixed results: Spraying crops with pesticides has met with strong resistance from Afghans, and the funding of training for a paramilitary force to bust the labs and arrest the traffickers has been only modestly successful.

The leaked memo refers to a failed operation in Maiwand, near Kandahar, which saw armed farmers open fire on American-led teams attempting to uproot their opium. In contrast, the most effective drug busts have been achieved by the Afghan Special Narcotics Force (ASNF), a small and highly secretive military team trained by British special forces. Since January 2004 it has seized more than 100 tons of opium and destroyed 100 heroin labs.

British officials are coy about discussing the Special Air Service's role in the ASNF but claim it has succeeded in denting the countrywide drug trade. "As we speak there's a fresh operation taking place in two districts in Kandahar," a British official said Sunday. Cultivation levels have fallen by over 50 percent in Nangarhar, last year's largest opium growing province, he added.

By Jamie Wilson

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