-By Kirk Semple and Tim Golden
After the biggest opium harvest in Afghanistan’s history, American officials have renewed efforts to persuade the government here to begin spraying herbicide on opium poppies, and they have found some supporters within President Hamid Karzai’s administration, officials of both countries said.
Since early this year, Mr. Karzai has repeatedly declared his opposition to spraying the poppy fields, whether by crop-dusting airplanes or by eradication teams on the ground.
But Afghan officials said the Karzai administration is now re-evaluating that stance. Some proponents within the government are pushing a trial program of ground spraying that could begin before the harvest next spring.
The issue has created sharp divisions within the Afghan government, among its Western allies and even American officials of different agencies. The matter is fraught with political danger for Mr. Karzai, whose hold on power is weak.
Many spraying advocates, including officials at the White House and the State Department, view herbicides as critical to curbing Afghanistan’s poppy crop, officials said. That crop and the opium and heroin it produces have become a major source of revenue for the Taliban insurgency.
But officials said the skeptics — who include American military and intelligence officials and European diplomats in Afghanistan — fear that any spraying of American-made chemicals over Afghan farms would be a boon to Taliban propagandists. Some of those officials say that the political cost could be especially high if the herbicide destroys food crops that farmers often plant alongside their poppies.
“There has always been a need to balance the obvious greater effectiveness of spray against the potential for losing hearts and minds,” Thomas A. Schweich, the assistant secretary of state for international narcotics issues, said in an interview last week in Washington. “The question is whether that’s manageable. I think that it is.”
Bush administration officials say they will respect whatever decision the Afghan government makes. Crop-eradication efforts, they insist, are only part of a new counternarcotics strategy that will include increased efforts against traffickers, more aid for legal agriculture and development, and greater military support for the drug fight.
Behind the scenes, however, Bush administration officials have been pressing the Afghan government to at least allow the trial spray of glyphosate, a commonly used weed-killer, current and former American officials said. Ground spraying would likely bring only a modest improvement over the manual destruction of poppy plants, but officials who support the strategy hope it would reassure Afghans about the safety of the herbicide and make eradication possible.
Aerial spraying, they add, may be the only way to make a serious impact on opium production while the Taliban continues to dominate parts of southern Afghanistan.
On Sunday, officials said, a State Department crop-eradication expert briefed key members of Mr. Karzai’s cabinet about the effectiveness and safety of glyphosate. The expert, Charles S. Helling, a senior scientific adviser to the department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, met with, among others, the ministers of public health and agriculture, both of whom have opposed the use of herbicides, an Afghan official said.
For all the controversy over herbicide use, there is no debate that Afghanistan’s drug problem is out of control. The country now produces 93 percent of the world’s opiates, according to United Nations estimates. Its traffickers are also processing more opium into heroin base there, a shift that has helped to increase Afghanistan’s drug revenues exponentially since the American-led invasion in 2001.
A United Nations report in August documented a 17 percent rise in poppy cultivation from 2006 to 2007, and a 34 percent rise in opium production. Perhaps more important for the effort to stabilize Afghanistan, officials said, the Taliban has been reaping a windfall from taxes on the growers and traffickers.
The problem is most acute in the southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold. It produced nearly 4,400 metric tons of opium this year, almost half the country’s total output, United Nations statistics show.
Moreover, as Afghanistan’s opium production has soared, the government’s eradication efforts have faltered. Federal and provincial eradication teams — using sticks, sickles and animal-drawn plows — cut down about 47,000 acres of poppy fields this year, 24 percent more than last year but still less than 9 percent of the country’s total poppy crop.
And even that effort had to be negotiated plot by plot with growers. Powerful and politically connected landowners were able to protect their crops while smaller, weaker farmers were made the targets. The eradication program was so spotty that it did little to discourage farmers from cultivating the crop, American and European officials said.
The eradication process over the past five years has not worked,” Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in an interview. “This year, it was a farce.”
A United Nations report estimates that the country’s cultivation of poppy buds has risen 17 percent in the last year.
President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan has opposed spraying but his administration is re-evaluating that stance.
The Americans have been pushing the Afghan government to eradicate with glyphosate for at least two years. According to current and former American officials, the subject has been raised with President Karzai by President Bush; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; Stephen J. Hadley, the national security adviser; and John P. Walters, the director of national drug-control policy.
American officials thought they had the Karzai administration’s support late last year to begin a small-scale pilot program for ground spraying in several provinces. But that plan was derailed in January after an American-educated deputy minister of public health presented health and environmental concerns about glyphosate at a meeting of the Karzai cabinet, Afghan and American officials said.
Since then, Mr. Karzai has said he opposes spraying of any kind.
“President Karzai has categorically rejected that spraying will happen,” Farooq Wardak, Afghanistan’s minister of state for parliamentary affairs, said in a recent interview. “The collateral damage of that will be huge.”
Yet in the weeks since the latest United Nations drug report, the Bush administration’s lobbying appears to have made new headway. It has already won the backing of several members of Mr. Karzai’s government and the spray advocates here are now trying to swing other key Afghan officials and Mr. Karzai himself, one high-level Afghan official said.
“We are working to convince the key ministers and President Karzai to accept this strategy,” said the official, who supports spraying but asked not to be identified because of the issue’s political delicacy. “We want to convince them to show some power. The government has to show its power in the remote provinces.”
General Khodaidad, Afghanistan’s acting minister of counternarcotics (who, like many Afghans, goes by only one name), said in an interview last week that ground spraying is under careful consideration by the Afghan government. A high-level official of the Karzai administration said he believed some spraying might take place during this growing season, which begins in several weeks.
The American government contends that glyphosate is one of the world’s safest herbicides — “less toxic than common salt, aspirin, caffeine, nicotine and even vitamin A,” according to a State Department fact sheet.
One well known supporter of glyphosate as a counternarcotics tool is the American ambassador in Kabul, William B. Wood, who arrived in April after a four-year posting as ambassador to Colombia. There, Mr. Wood oversaw the American-financed counternarcotics program, Plan Colombia, which relies heavily on the aerial spraying of coca, the raw material for cocaine.
Mr. Wood has even offered to have himself sprayed with glyphosate, as one of his predecessors in Colombia once did, to prove its safety, a United States Embassy official in Kabul said.
But among European diplomats here, a far greater concern than any environmental or health dangers of chemical eradication is the potential for political fallout that could lead to more violence and instability.
Those diplomats worry particularly that aerial spraying would kill food crops that some farmers plant with their poppies. European officials add that any form of spraying could be cast by the Taliban as American chemical warfare against the Afghan peasantry.
The British have been so concerned that on the eve of Mr. Karzai’s trip to Camp David in August, Prime Minister Gordon Brown called President Bush and asked him not to pressure the Afghan premier to use herbicides, according to several diplomats here.
In something of a reversal of traditional roles, officials at the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency have also challenged the White House and State Department support for spraying, raising concerns about its potential to destabilize the Karzai government, current and former American officials said.
American officials who support herbicide use do not dismiss such concerns. They say an extensive public-information campaign would have to be carried out in conjunction with any spraying effort to dispel fears about the chemical’s impacts.
Mr. Schweich, the assistant secretary of state, emphasized that a new American counter-narcotics strategy for Afghanistan, introduced in August, went far beyond eradication. He noted that it would increase punishments and rewards, including large amounts of development aid, to move farmers away from poppy cultivation. It also calls for more forceful eradication, interdiction and law enforcement efforts, and closer coordination of counternarcotics and counterinsurgency efforts, which until now have been pursued separately.
“We will do what the Afghan government wants to do,” Mr. Schweich said, referring to the use of herbicides. The Bush administration, he added, simply wants to ensure that the Afghans “have all the facts on the table.”