Interview with counter-narcotics minister

Kabul, January 26, 2005 (IRIN) - Afghanistan's estimated opium output stood at an alarming 4,600 mt in 2004. The country retained its title of being the biggest global producer of the drug. But Kabul is optimistic that in 2005 intensive eradication programmes and alternative livelihood projects will have an impact on opium cultivation and trade.

In an interview with IRIN, H.E. Habibullah Qaderi, head of the newly established counter-narcotics ministry, estimated a 30-50 percent reduction in cultivation this year and called for greater long-term donor commitment to assist the ministry in tackling the opium scourge.

QUESTION: Why has a new ministry been set up to tackle the narcotics trade?

ANSWER: The Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN) has been established because it is very, very vital for Afghanistan. Because Afghanistan has been cultivating poppies for many years and from poppies they have produced opium and converted it to heroin morphine and other deadly drugs.

We already had a department for counter narcotics but the problem wascoordination. This issue is so complex, you need a multi-sectoral approach. So we needed to have a bigger department to create capacity in the government and the judiciary; we need special judges, special prosecutors and investigators.

The other thing that we need is public information, to tell people that it is against the law, that it is against the constitution and against our religion. Also eradication, surveillance and other things, all require careful coordination, hence the need for a separate ministry. We are saying that this is a key issue for Afghanistan right now.

Q: Observers say there can be no progress until alternative livelihoods are provided to poor farmers. Have there been any developments here?

A: The most sustainable way of stopping opium cultivation is by giving alternative livelihoods. Many people in Afghanistan are poor people. They cultivate out of compulsion because they have not choice, because of drought and/or lack of sufficient land, and also because the cost of production is very high so they go for poppies which give them good return.

So far not much has been done. Temporary job creation is going on for example in [the southern province of] Helmand, where 9,000 people were employed in canal clearance. In [the eastern province of] Nangarhar, USAID [the US Agency for International Development} is going to start some projects and DFID [the UK Department for International Development} is going to start in [the northeastern province of] Badakhshan. But I think these are not enough.

We have to think carefully about alternative livelihoods. Either we find jobs for those cultivating opium or we will try to manage the water better and help them with irrigation so that the cost of growing something else comes down. Also, on the agricultural side, we can help by providing them with alternative crops. Micro-credit is another option, which can help them leave poppy cultivation as many farmers need cash.

Q: What do you expect to achieve in 2005 in terms of opium reduction?

A: We are hoping for a 30 to 50 percent reduction in cultivation compared to last year. In Nangarhar there are a lot of reports that very few people have cultivated [opium] this year. In Helmand also there is a reduction in cultivation and a lot of poppy fields have been destroyed. But eradication is a long-term process and we cannot achieve a lot in a short time. I can give you the example of Pakistan, Thailand and other countries. For more than 30 years, Thailand has been assisting farmers and only now they are trying to stop the cultivation. In Pakistan it took more than 10 years to provide alternative livelihoods.

Q: Why there was such a big increase in opium production last year, what do you think went wrong?

A: I think the increase was mainly because the cultivators thought you can earn a lot of money and nobody is going to do anything. But now farmers have realised that it is against the constitution and most important, President [Hamid} Karzai mentioned that poppy cultivation undermines the prestige of the country. I think this is very important, and for many Afghans pride is much more important than the money.

Q: What are your plans for 2005?

The strategy will be both assistance and force, so let's see what happens. The government will try to do more eradication and at the same time, provide alternative livelihoods within the resources available, as well as arresting traffickers and dealers. We are going to send teams to all the provinces to see that what are the needs on the livelihood side.

We are trying to establish a counter-narcotics trust fund within the Afghan government. So that all the countries assisting the Afghan counter-narcotics efforts should channel it through this trust fund.

Q: The US government announced a $870 million assistance programme and the UK, the same amount again for Afghan counter narcotics, so the resources are there, are they not?

A: It is all rumours. The US government has talked about providing $800 million for this purpose but most of this money is for spraying the poppy fields. But this has not been approved by the US Congress. But it is not clear if this will happen, because the government of Afghanistan is against the aerial spraying of poppy fields. The practice would be very unpopular because the use of chemicals will affect humans, animals and other crops in the area.

So there is no clear-cut commitment from the US regarding how many millions of dollars they will put up for our struggle against narcotics. It is the same thing with the UK, they have not committed millions of pounds, but they are rather ready to help us. They have so far helped in capacity building, demand reduction and different aspects of the former counter-narcotics department.

Q: There were reports last year that some government officials were involved in the drug business, how you would tackle this challenge?

A: Certainly there are smugglers who use government channels and positions to smuggle the narcotics. If they want to arrest anybody it is the duty of the police. But for the time being it is very difficult for a government to find and arrest another government official. This is the problem in this country. I think they should take action against anybody in the government or outside. The government was not serious but it is very serious now.

Q: When do you expect a drug-free Afghanistan?

A: To put a time limit is very, very difficult. You make a plan then it depends what happens during next five years. We need international support. If we don't get it, it will take longer time. For the time being we stick to the date mentioned in the previous strategy, which is to tackle 70 percent [of production] in five years and the remaining 30 percent in another five years. Which means all together it will take 10 years to tackle the opium poppy issue in Afghanistan but let's see what happens.