Afghanistan is still the source of almost all of the heroin sold in London, even though Britain has poured millions into trying to stamp out the war-wrecked country’s resurgent drugs production business.
Opium poppies are springing up from the plains to the mountains of Afghanistan in far higher quantities than in the final year of the Taliban, which the US and Britain overthrew, while vowing to end the region’s narcotics trade. Opium – from which heroin is extracted – is produced on farms only a few dozen miles from the capital city of Kabul, headquarters to the international effort to end the heroin trade and rebuild the country.
Local Afghans say that bags of heroin are used in lieu of currency in some parts of the lawless countryside where – more than two years after the Taliban was toppled – the US-backed interim government of Hamid Karzai has failed to establish control.
After the war, Britain assumed responsibility for co-ordinating the international effort to crush Afghanistan’s opium trade. It is spending £70m over three years on a project to eradicate poppy production by providing Afghan farmers with another livelihood and by training the fledgling and badly under-manned police force. But this bleak picture suggests that its efforts have so far failed to turn the tide.
HM Customs and Excise, which is running a programme in Kabul, has admitted that 95 per cent of the heroin sold on London’s streets is still of Afghan origin. This has prompted George Osborne, a Tory MP who sits on the Public Accounts Committee, to call for an investigation into what has been happening to the money.
Mr Osborne, who fears that much of it may have been pocketed by regional warlords, wants an investigation by the National Audit Office, which supervises public spending.
Figures released by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime show Afghanistan now grows more than nine times as many opium poppies as during the final year of the Taliban. The roaring opium trade runs counter to one of the main aims declared by Britain for joining the US in the war on Afghanistan.
In October 2001, a few days before the start of the Afghanistan war, Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference that “the biggest drugs hoard in the world is in Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban”. He said then that 90 per cent of the heroin on London streets was from Afghanistan: “The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people, buying their drugs on British streets.” The Prime Minister repeated this claim a week later in the Commons, when he announced that the military campaign had begun, telling MPs that the Taliban “is largely funded by the drugs trade”.
The cultivation of opium reached its peak in 1999, when 225,000 acres – 350 square miles – of poppies were sown, with the complicity or encouragement of the Taliban, who were accused of using part of the proceeds to buy arms. The following year, the Taliban responded to international pressure to start reducing the opium harvest. It banned poppy cultivation, declaring it to be “un-Islamic” – a move which cut production by 94 per cent, although it continued to allow trading. By 2001 only 30 square miles of land were in use for growing opium poppies.
A year later, after American and British troops had removed the Taliban and installed the interim government of Hamid Karzai, the land under cultivation leapt back to 285 square miles, with Afghanistan supplanting Burma to become the world’s largest opium producer once more.
One of the reasons that aid workers have been unable to persuade Afghan farmers to switch to growing crops appears to be the continuing security problem in the country, deepened by the slow rate of recruitment to the national army and police. The Karzai administration has tried offering cash to farmers as compensation for not growing opium, but the money – £1,850 per acre – proved far less than the profits available from staying in the poppy business.
There are few signs that the security situation is improving. US bases and Afghan government forces come under almost daily attack. There have been attacks on international aid workers – a fortnight ago four German peacekeepers in Kabulwere killed by a suicide bomber.
Mike O’Brien, a Foreign Office minister, admitted that “security in Afghanistan remains a serious concern”. A Foreign Office spokeswoman said there was no “quick fix” to the drugs production problem in Afghanistan. But Britain was involved in a “very ambitious” anti-narcotics programme, she said, “especially when you think of the lack of government infrastructure in large parts of the country outside Kabul”.