U.S. Seeks Help in Afghanistan as Drug Trade Booms

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Afghanistan last week with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband to try to rally more support from NATO allies for the war in Afghanistan. Meantime, the U.N. reported a bumper crop of opium in Afghanistan in 2008. Profits from the drug trade fund the Taliban.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, a famous ham coming to America, and it's not Sacha Baron Cohen. But first, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Afghanistan earlier this week. While there she traveled to Kandahar, former Taliban stronghold before they were driven out in 2001. Secretary Rice had this to say about the resurgence of the Taliban.

Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. State Department): Afghanistan has determined enemies who laid waste to this country over a period of more than a decade. And it was at that time a country that was only coming out of 25 years of civil war. So of course it's going to be difficult to rebuild the institutions like the security institutions.

SIMON: Secretary Rice made her trip with British Foreign Secretary David Miliband. They've been trying to rally more support from NATO allies for the war in Afghanistan. The U.S., Canada, Great Britain and the Netherlands shoulder most of the burden of the fighting. So far other NATO countries have been reluctant to send troops. Canada said unless other countries send more, it will pull its forces out early next year.

Making the picture even more gloomy this week, the United Nations office on drugs and crime released reports saying that 2008 will be a near record year for opium production in Afghanistan. And money from the drug trade funds the Taliban, as much as $100 million. Joining us from Afghanistan is NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson. Thanks so much for being with us, Soraya.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: You're welcome, glad to do it.

SIMON: How does the Taliban end up with all this money?

NELSON: Well, in many cases they impose a tax on both the farmers and traffickers, and usually the amount is about ten percent. Basically it's an Islamic version of tithing called ushard(ph), and they actually formerly collected it when the Taliban was the government here. But it's important to note that the Taliban are not the only ones skimming off poppy crop income. Everybody from landlords to corrupt police officers, and even some government officials, are also collecting their share.

SIMON: How dependent is the Taliban on the money?

NELSON: Well, it's hard to say. There are outside sources of money coming from Arab sympathizers; there is some talk that Pakistani intelligence officers also fund the Taliban to some extent. But there's no doubt that the opium money is key to arming the Taliban and funding their attacks.

SIMON: The report says that year set a record for the number of acres of poppies grown. Does this mean that all the eradication efforts and the many programs we've heard about that try to persuade farmers to plant other crops just aren't working?

NELSON: Well, the U.N. report noted that eradication has had a negligible effect, especially when you're in Taliban territory or insurgence-rife territory. I've seen this myself. When I went to Helmand in the south last spring, eradication was pretty much limited to a 50 mile radius around the provincial capital. And even there if you paid a bribe, a certain amount of your crops would be spared.

And so actually the U.S. and Afghan officials have had more luck in curbing opium production when they do education programs or provide farmers with alternative seeds and fertilizer. But the problem there is that they're not doing this as much as they need to. And Afghan farmers - for example, in Badashom(ph), where I went as well, the farmers there were expressing frustration. They say they had given up on farming opium, but they weren't getting enough projects or alternatives in return. I mean they want things like crop subsidies and helping get their goods to market, and all those things are just not moving fast enough for them.

SIMON: Do you see the production as just continuing to grow?

NELSON: Yes. Well, overall it's supposed to go down a little bit. It's definitely gonna increase in the areas that are of most concern, like in Helmand province and Kandahar and other places to the south and west. And basically, besides farmers being pressured by landlords, militants and traffickers to grow the opium, a lot of them are in a lot of debt to these guys. And so they have to keep growing it just to be able to pay off their debt.

And so, you know, everyone is expecting - from the U.N. to Afghans to the Americans - are expecting that in fact this will be a very bad year again for opium production.

SIMON: NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson in Kabul. Thanks very much.

NELSON: You're welcome.

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