US ponders future of aerial attack on Afghan opium

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WASHINGTON, Nov 9 (Reuters) A heated debate within the Bush administration over Afghanistan's surging opium trade could lead the United States to shelve a contentious plan to spray poppy crops with herbicide from the air, officials say.

Aerial spraying, used by the United States to fight cocaine production in Latin America, is championed by counternarcotics officials in the White House and State Department as the most effective way to destroy poppies in Taliban-controlled areas and cut a key source of funding for the Islamist militants.

But it has run into broad resistance from Afghan officials, the US Congress and Defense Department, and European allies who fear it could backfire on efforts to win over the Afghan people, according to officials and experts involved in the discussions.

Critics say spraying would give the Taliban a powerful propaganda tool among villagers devastated by a Soviet campaign that destroyed food crops with aerial defoliant.

''Aerial spraying would likely have a serious detrimental effect on the counterinsurgency front,'' said Seth Jones of the RAND Corp, a global policy think-tank based in California.

''It's hard to overstate how much disinformation there is among Afghan farmers. It would be fairly easy for insurgents to say: 'The US is spraying chemicals to kill your crops.' And in fact, they've already started saying this.'' Record poppy harvests have given Afghanistan a 3 billion dollar opium industry whose corrupting influence poses a serious threat to government authority and saddles other countries with the criminal and health problems of the heroin trade.

The Afghan crop, which produces 93 per cent of the world's opiates, is a major source of income for Taliban insurgents in the south who have deepened ties with farmers and traffickers, according to US defense and counterterrorism officials.

''It's fueling the insurgency. Removing that revenue would diminish the threat considerably,'' said Beth Cole of the US Institute of Peace.

CHEMICALS OR TRACTORS? US-backed herbicide spraying proved controversial in Latin America, where its use on coca fields is blamed for anti-American sentiment that helped bring leftist Evo Morales to power in Bolivia.

The US House of Representatives endorsed a funding ban on Afghan herbicide spraying in its 2008 appropriations bill for foreign operations, while the Senate version declared aerial spraying as less effective than manual eradication. Final legislation is expected later this year.

The US National Security Council (NSC) was due to enter the debate as early as this week to consider whether aerial spraying should be part of US policy on Afghanistan.

''The question is whether aerial spraying would be an option. This would be a decision by the administration as a whole as to what avenue to pursue here,'' said one US official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Formal NSC backing could escalate US efforts to persuade the Afghan government to accept a limited aerial spraying program, experts said.

NSC officials declined to comment, while a State Department spokeswoman said only that the United States will implement whatever strategy the Afghan government chooses to adopt.

In 2007, Afghan poppy cultivation jumped 17 percent to 477,000 acres (193,000 hectares) -- more than all of the land set aside for coca in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia combined, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has opposed spraying in preference for manual and mechanical eradication, including the use of tractors to churn up poppy fields.

But in recent weeks, Kabul has agreed to impanel an outside committee of science experts on the safety and efficacy of the herbicide glyphosate, the agent recommended by Washington.

Experts who monitor events in Afghanistan believe US and Afghan officials could be nearing a tentative deal to allow test spraying by ground-based teams, an option less contentious than aerial spraying that could still set an important precedent for herbicide use in Afghanistan.

''This would be in conjunction with a major eradication effort in Helmand province that would rely mainly on tractors and other mechanized methods,'' said one expert who recently visited the country.

Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, produces more than half of Afghanistan's opium crop.

Reuters MP VP0425

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