Thursday, July 30, 2009

(BN) Holbrooke Says U.S. End to Afghan Drug-Eradication Effort `Well Received'

Bloomberg News, sent from my iPhone.

Holbrooke Says U.S. End to Afghan Drug Eradication Gets Results

July 30 (Bloomberg) -- The Obama administration's decision to stop eradicating drug crops in Afghanistan and increase funding for agricultural development is the "most well-received change of American policy" in the region, a U.S. special envoy said.

Richard Holbrooke, who returned July 28 from a weeklong trip to the region, told reporters yesterday the Bush administration wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on "counterproductive" efforts to wipe out opium poppy production.

"All we did was alienate" poor farmers who had no alternative cash crops or means of livelihood, "and we were driving people into the hands of the Taliban," said Holbrooke, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. "The amount of hectares we were destroying was inconsequential and the amount of money we were denying the Taliban was zero."

The decision to stop eradicating opium poppy was part of a larger policy shift ordered by President Barack Obama, who announced four months ago that he would send more troops, diplomats and development workers to Afghanistan to spearhead an integrated civil-military approach to eliminating terrorist safe havens in the region, including in Pakistan.

The new U.S. approach to drugs in Afghanistan "flies in the face of a lot of conventional drug-enforcement doctrine," said Holbrooke, a former ambassador to the United Nations under President Bill Clinton.

In countries such as Mexico, Colombia and parts of Thailand, much of the focus of U.S. policy has been to eradicate drugs, he said. "Here, the purpose of our policy is to strengthen the government and help defeat the Taliban," Holbrooke said. "And we were not doing it."

Interdiction Efforts

Rather than spending an estimated $44,000 per hectare, or 2.47 acres, to eradicate poppy crops, the U.S. will focus on drug interdiction efforts that target traffickers and the development of alternative crops, Holbrooke said.

He said that on his latest trip to Helmand and Kandahar provinces, two strongholds of the Afghan Taliban that are also among the most heavily planted with poppy crops, he had seen "the first tangible evidence that one of the most important policy shifts" made by the U.S. for the region "is beginning to show results."

Holbrooke said farmers had begun to understand that the U.S. was plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into developing the cultivation of lucrative legal crops and roads to marketplaces, providing alternatives that would allow them to abandon poppy cultivation.

In a separate roundtable yesterday, Josette Sheeran, executive director of the Rome-based UN World Food Program, said improved distribution techniques in Afghanistan have helped spur demand for wheat to the point where it's becoming competitive with the price of poppies.

To contact the reporter on this story: Indira Lakshmanan in Washington at ilakshmanan@bloomberg.net

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