Mounting US pressure to spray herbicides to combat record opium harvests faces stiff resistance from Afghan leaders and impoverished farmers, who say the chemicals will poison the country�'�''�''s water and croplands.

Programs to eradicate opium poppies -- the raw ingredient for heroin -- by sending teams into the countryside to destroy them by hand have failed to keep pace with increased planting. As a result, Afghanistan has re-emerged as a leading source for narcotics. Production in 2007 soared more than 34 percent to 8,200 metric tons from last year�'�''�''s record 6,100 metric tons, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in its latest report. More than 14 percent of Afghanistan�'�''�''s population, or more than 3 million people, are involved in opium production, according to the United Nations. And that figure is rising.

"Afghanistan�'�''�''s opium production has thus reached a frighteningly new level, twice the amount produced just two years ago," the report said.

The $3 billion-a-year trade feeds the growing Taliban-led insurgency, which in turn underpins the drug barons by stoking insecurity and limiting the reach of the authorities, especially in the southern heartland of the Islamist militants.

"The narcotics and the insurgency feed into each other," said Joanna Nathan, the International Crisis Group�'�''�''s Afghanistan analyst based in Kabul.

As opium crops set records in 2006 and 2007 so, too, did violence, with fighting now the worst since the 2001 US-led offensive that drove the Taliban from power in Kabul. The Taliban, which declared opium un-Islamic, all but wiped out production during their 1996-2001 rule, but are now working with drug lords to protect smuggling routes and take a share of profits, analysts say.

The US general in charge of the 40,000 strong NATO-led force, Dan McNeill, said this week up to 40 percent of the Taliban�'�''�''s funding comes from drugs, a figure he said could rise to 60 percent.

Eradication teams -- mainly using Afghan forces and foreign security contractors -- cut down crops with sickles and sticks, a painstaking process that requires time-consuming community consultation, and which critics say hurts small farmers the most, while well-connected are able to buy their way out.

US and Afghan supporters of aerial spraying defend the method as more effective, pointing to success in Colombia. They also insist spraying is safer, especially in the southern Afghanistan, where most of the opium is grown but where fighting makes most areas out of bounds for eradication teams.

Highlighting the problems of relying on manual eradication -- while 20,000 hectares (40,500 acres) were destroyed in 2007, the total area planted increased by 28,000 hectares (69,150 acres). But President Hamid Karzai, whose government is accused of being weak and ineffective, and who struggles to balance domestic political pressures with the demands of his Western backers, has firmly ruled out spraying chemical herbicides, either from the air or on the ground.

Karzai said efforts to destroy the opium industry must go hand-in-hand with building a stronger economy and giving farmers alternative ways to support their families.

"So, for us it�'�''�''s imperative to get rid of poppy -- for the reasons of our economy, for the reasons of our dignity, for the reasons of our prosperity and for our future," he said.

"The methods, the ways, the strategy is something that we keep haggling with," Karzai continued. "We believe that the best course of action for the eradication of poppies, or the elimination of poppy in Afghanistan, is to give the Afghan people hope for the future. An economy that they can rely upon."

Farmers are bitterly opposed to spraying.

"There is no way not to plant poppies," said a 43-year-old farmer in northern Balkh province, bordering Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan, now technically one of 13 poppy-free provinces after an aggressive campaign by Governor Atta Mohammad Nur.

"We don�'�''�''t have any other solutions. How can we earn a living? I am the only breadwinner of my family.

"We will never let anyone spray chemicals to our farmland. Do they want to destroy our land forever? Then, what is the difference between them and the Taliban?"

Daoud Sultanzoy, an influential independent member of parliament, said spraying represents only a short-term solution - designed merely to please constituencies outside of Afghanistan. He added the use of herbicides would not address the underlying issues that cause farmers to cultivate poppies. "We should not find instantaneous solutions for much deeply rooted problems, and instant gratification should not drive our decision making," he said.

"We should consider Afghanistan as a nation where human beings live," Sultanzoy continued. "We should address Afghanistan as a nation where people live in very primitive conditions where they use surface water for irrigation, for consumption, for feeding their cattle and animals, for raising their children with."

In a land of subsistence farming and unreliable rains, opium needs less water than crops such as wheat.

In Balkh, Governor Mohammad Nur�'�''�''s relied on a multi-pronged approach toward eradication. He drafted university students to rip up crops, got local mullahs to speak out against poppy cultivation, authorized awareness programs in schools, and cracked down on official corruption. Taken together, the governor�'�''�''s plan all but wiped out opium production, after more than 7,230 hectares (18,600 acres) of poppy were cultivated in 2006.

But there has been an unexpected cost: disgruntled and angry farmers -- some of whom borrowed, and lost, heavily to plant poppy -- are now planting cannabis to produce hashish.

"I [sowed] part of my land [with] wheat, but it didn�'�''�''t grow," said another former poppy farmer. "We had a lack of water and fertilizer. �'�''�' I have planted hashish this year and I�'�''�''m looking forward to its harvest."

The head of Balkh�'�''�''s anti-drugs operations, Mohammad Anwar Razaqyar, said he was aware of the new problem.

"The amount is not that much. Some of the farmers in the remote villages have done this," he said in the provincial capital, Mazar-i-Sharif.

"But, we recently had a meeting attended by the security commanders of the districts and we urged them to destroy the fields."

While Afghanistan�'�''�''s opium industry is worth more than $3 billion a year, the UN estimates farmers receive about $1.75 billion of that, with the rest going to drug lords, the Taliban, smugglers and middlemen. But more is being processed inside the country now -- 70-90 percent -- to boost profits.

Eradication is the only weapon in the fight against opium: development projects are designed to encourage the cultivation of alternative crops, while other initiatives aim to make infrastructure improvements that make it easier for farmers to sell their crops. So far, however, the combination of carrots and sticks has not been enough to get farmers to abandon poppy cultivation. The next sowing season begins in a matter of weeks.

Some analysts believe the best way to contain the poppy phenomenon would be to legalize at least part of the opium trade to help produce medicines such as morphine -- a scheme long used in India and Turkey. But it�'�''�''s an idea with little official support so far.

In the meantime, with most farmers earning less than a dollar a day, losing their crops is fuelling anger at the Karzai administration and his international backers. In some cases, it is driving rural Afghans into the arms of the Taliban. "When they rip up your crop, what do you do? You grab your gun," said a Kabul-based Western security analyst with three decades�'�''�'' experience in and out of Afghanistan.
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