British and US accused of poppy plague warfare in Afghanistan

By chillinwill · May 7, 2010 · Updated May 12, 2010 · ·
  1. chillinwill
    Britain and the US have been accused of launching secret biological warfare on Afghanistan's poppy fields in a bid to blight the opium crop

    Poppy plants have been suffering from a mysterious disease which leaves them yellow and withered and slashes the yield of opium resin which is sold on and processed into heroin.

    The worst affected farmers have said the scale of the infection is unprecedented. Yields have dropped by up to 90 per cent in some fields they complained.

    Farmers are claiming that the British and Americans are responsible for the outbreak of the poppy plague but officials have strongly denied involvement.

    Samples of diseased plants are awaiting tests in Kabul and the cause remains unclear.

    The blight was first noticed a month ago with reports it was linked to an infestation of aphids in wheat and fruit trees. It has since been found in four provinces across the south.

    Early surveys suggest half the crop in northern Helmand is affected and a fifth of fields in the province's south. Symptoms have been spotted in Kandahar, Zabul and Uruzgan.

    The United Nations said the disease would contribute to a significant drop in the opium harvest from last year's total of nearly 7,000 tonnes.

    The country grows about 90 per cent of the world's opium. Tithes and protection money from the drug trade are estimated to give up to £60m a year to the Taliban-led insurgency.

    The allies have spent billions of pounds trying to cut opium cultivation, but have rejected crop spraying, fearing that robbing farmers of their livelihood will push them to the militants.

    The British-led anti-drugs strategy has instead tried to wean farmers from opium on to wheat, saffron and fruit.

    British officials in Helmand are now trying to counter the rumours of international involvement in the outbreak, fearing they will be used by the Taliban to alienate farmers from Nato troops.

    Abdul Ahmad, a 39-year-old farmer from Helmand's Gereshk district, said he expected his opium crop to fall from 154lbs last year to 15lbs this year.

    He said: "We have had disease before although nothing like this. There were little insects in the trees and the wheat, but they are only harming the opium." "I said first this is a disease because of the insects. Now people are saying foreigners have sprayed some kind of chemical from planes."

    Ahmad Jan, a 25-year-old farmer from Nad-i-Ali district, said: "We cannot be certain this is a disease. Most people think this is a chemical spray." Prior to the outbreak, the UN had estimated the 2010 crop would be similar to last year.

    Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, said: "Samples are at the lab and we are at this moment not sure if it is a fungus or some insect.

    "Spraying has been forbidden in very clear words by the President of Afghanistan. Hence, awaiting the results from our lab tests, we start with the belief that this is a natural phenomenon."

    Fighting and opium seizures had already been credited with pushing farm gate opium prices up by 19 per cent since last year as speculators bet on reduced supply.

    An international official in Helmand said there was "absolutely" no US or British involvement. He said: "The government of Afghanistan are not using any kind of spraying and there's nothing else going on either."

    Ben Farmer
    May 6, 2010

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  1. chillinwill
    Taliban in the money as disease hits opium harvest

    Afghan opium poppy farmers suspect the mystery blight might be the work of Nato forces

    Opium poppies in Afghanistan are under attack from a mysterious disease which may have reduced the opium harvest by a quarter - and local farmers are blaming Nato forces for their predicament.

    The UN's Office on Drugs and Crime estimates 2,500 tonnes of opium may have been lost to the disease, which withers the opium capsule of infected poppies. The Taliban’s traditional strongholds of Kandahar, Oruzgan and Helmand – the frontline in Nato’s battle against the insurgents – are the worst-affected provinces.

    The Taliban government of the 1990s effectively wiped out opium production in Afghanistan, but after they were deposed with the help of Nato forces in 2001, the insurgents turned to the trade as a lucrative source of funds.

    Afghan farmers, who remember America’s now-abandoned policy of spraying opium fields with herbicides from the air, suspect foul play – a charge denied by Nato, which in recent years has preferred to use financial incentives to persuade farmers to switch to legal crops.

    Conspiracy theorists are recalling a BBC Panorama programme from 2000, which reported on a research laboratory in Uzbekistan studying the Pleospora fungus with the specific aim of wiping out opium poppies in Afghanistan. The US and British governments, the main sponsors of the UN-fronted project, vowed only to use this potential biological weapon with the approval of the Afghan government, which in those days was the Taliban.

    Commonsense would suggest the current affliction of the opium plant has nothing to do with that research project. Put bluntly, a biological weapon with a 25 per cent kill rate would be an embarrassment.

    Meanwhile Jean-Luc Lemahieu, UNODC's Kabul representative, told AFP that tests by Afghanistan's interior ministry to determine the nature of the disease had proved inconclusive. He added that "plague, pests, blight" had hit Afghanistan’s poppy crop in 2002 and 2006: "Natural phenomenon cannot be excluded, as happens to wheat, corn, apples. It is part of nature."

    UNODC’s head in New York, Antonio Maria Costa, was also unable to shed any light on the cause, telling the New York Times that the disease was most likely caused by an aphid, but that it could also be down to an outbreak of fungus or virus.

    Another boring but plausible explanation is the drought which has been affecting Helmand. Water shortage stresses plants, reduces yields - and also makes them more susceptible to pests and disease.

    However, if foreign governments are indeed waging biological warfare on opium poppies, it could be their enemies who have the last laugh. There are believed to be 10,000 tonnes of opium stockpiles, most of which belongs to the Taliban, who held it back, cartel-style, to inflate prices.

    The disease has already boosted opium prices by around 50 per cent – and the Taliban will be expecting a windfall.

    By Tim Edwards
    May 13, 2010
    The First Post
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