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Interview with UK minister on Afghan opium poppy campaign

[Afghanistan] Bill Rammell MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. IRIN
Bill Rammell MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
Despite intense international efforts to tackle opium proliferation in Afghanistan, more than 100,000 hectares are now being used for opium cultivation inside the country - higher than the peak figure of 91,000 hectares in 1999, according to UNODC figures. The UK is feeling the impact of the increase, with 95 percent of heroin available in British cities coming from Afghanistan. In an interview with IRIN, Bill Rammell MP, UK Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, said London was aware of the need to reduce demand for the drug at home, as well as tackling production at source in Afghanistan. QUESTION: Given the increase in Afghan opium production over the past two years, can we talk about success in tackling the problem? ANSWER: We are expecting an increase in poppy cultivation [this year] but that does not mean we have failed. It does mean this will take time. We are two years into the 10-year Afghan strategy. We need a comprehensive approach. I think all the building blocks are in place now. Sizeable seizures are being made - 51 tonnes so far this year - and drug traffickers are being arrested. But Afghanistan becoming more secure and stable, particularly in the regions, is critical to success in tackling opium cultivation. Q: What is the next step, to reduce or eradicate poppy cultivation? A: We need a fast-track counter-narcotics element in the judicial and criminal system. We need targeted eradication. There is now a central planning cell in place to direct and verify crop destruction. We need internal projects to deal with drug addiction within Afghanistan and we need alternative livelihoods. All of those elements are now in place. The real test of what we are doing is going to be the next planting season. I think what we are doing can and will succeed. Q: So the UK strategy is more or less on track? A: Where we are at the moment is roughly where we expected to be. If you look at those countries that previously successfully tackled poppy cultivation, like Thailand and Pakistan, initially cultivation tends to go up before it comes down because of improved infrastructure, improved water supply, and I think that is where we are at the moment. Q: Can the UK tackle the huge Afghan drug problem alone? A: We have taken the lead internationally but certainly we cannot do it on our own. Implementation of the Afghan strategy requires support obviously from the Afghan government - and the Afghans are as determined as we are to eliminate opium - but we need more support from influential groups, the United Nations and other nations. We are making significant financial contributions and we are spending 100 million pounds [about US $180 million] over three years. Q: Did this year's provincial eradication programmes have any impact? A: The Afghan government had to rely on the provincial governors to implement eradication this year because they have had no central capability to undertake this. Our assessment is that it was patchy. The Afghan government has got to talk to the governors and address that concern. We now have in place a central eradication poppy force which has started eradication and next year will have a greater capability. The policy of eradication is the responsibility of the Afghan government. They certainly have been determined to develop an uncompensated eradication scheme and I think that is the right approach that we fully support. We do hold the view that for eradication to be successful you need to target areas where there is an alternative livelihood in place. Q: What is your observation on last year's strategy of financing local governors, who are mostly local warlords, with hundreds of thousands of dollars to eradicate poppy fields in their areas? A: It was the Afghan government pursuing that strategy and they felt right to do that to get the governors to cooperate. As I said earlier, the eradication campaign was patchy. I do think the government has to ask the governors tough and challenging questions as to what the money was spent on and what the impact was. We are monitoring all those projects and that is why we are concerned and hope that [the monitoring] will influence eradication next year. Q: Afghans want to know what are you doing in terms of demand reduction inside the UK as over 95 percent of the opium in the UK markets comes from Afghanistan. A: I am very conscious that we can't just tell a country like Afghanistan that we want them to cut out poppy cultivation - even though it is manifestly in their interest. What we have got is a strategy that tackles the problems all the way along the supply-demand chain. I am not suggesting that we have got magic solutions but we are very conscious of the need to reduce the demand in the UK. Q: How do you think the Afghan anti-drugs campaign can be more successful? A: There are no short cuts to success, but we and the Afghans are making progress towards a long-term solution. Development projects are underway to provide farmers with a viable alternative livelihood and targeting for next year's poppy crop destruction is in hand. It is not the case that one strand of activity is more important than another. You've got to do the lot: you need forces that will intervene and seize drugs, you need eradication, you need alternative livelihoods, you need arrests, you need greater police capacity. Unless you have got all of these elements you are not going to succeed.
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