WASHINGTON — In 2004, U.S.-contracted aircraft secretly sprayed harmless plastic granules over poppy fields in Afghanistan to gauge public reaction to using herbicides to kill the opium poppies that help fund the Taliban and al Qaida.
The mysterious granules ignited a major outcry from poor farmers, tribal chiefs and government officials up to President Hamid Karzai, who demanded to know if the spraying was part of a poppy eradication program. At the time, U.S officials up to the level of Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad denied any knowledge of the program.
U.S. officials declined to identify the agency that oversaw the test spraying, but pointed out that the State Department oversees U.S. counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan. The department's bureau of international narcotics and law enforcement declined to comment. U.S. officials spoke to McClatchy Newspapers on condition of anonymity because the tests remain classified.
Now the Bush administration is pressing Karzai to spray real herbicide against what's expected to be another record opium poppy crop, which is refined into heroin. There's wide opposition — from Karzai and his government, NATO allies such as Britain with troops in Afghanistan and even major parts of the U.S. government, including the Pentagon, the CIA and U.S. military commanders.
Afghanistan's opium production is one of the biggest challenges confronting the United States in Afghanistan: No matter what action the U.S. government takes, it seems likely to benefit the Taliban insurgents. Opponents fear that spraying would trigger a backlash against Karzai, who's already politically weak, said U.S. and European officials, and deliver a propaganda bonanza to the Taliban. At the same time, a great percentage of the proceeds of opium poppy farming, if unchecked, will go to the Taliban.
The officials who confirmed details of the 2004 spraying for the first time made no secret of their opposition to the program that's being contemplated.
"It was a dry run," said a senior State Department official. "People freaked out."
"The results of those inert tests were: 'Don't do this, don't do this,'" recalled another senior U.S. official. "Every goat with a bad ear and every (legitimate) crop that doesn't grow will be blamed" on the spraying.
In the 2004 trials, U.S.-contracted aircraft dispersed the plastic granules over isolated poppy fields in the Shinwar district of eastern Nangarhar Province and a part of southwestern Farah Province in late 2004.
Farmers and local officials reported at the time that mysterious aircraft released the granules at night, and they worried that the material was toxic and would harm their families and destroy their livestock and crops.
The outcry is only one reason for Karzai's resistance to the latest State Department plan for extensive ground and aerial spraying of poppy fields before a projected record harvest of opium next spring. Karzai's agriculture ministry said it opposes spraying because the chemicals could destroy legal subsistence crops that are often cultivated alongside poppy. The public health ministry has warned of the threat spraying poses to drinking water, 80 percent of which comes from streams and open water sources.
The problem facing both Afghanistan and the United States is that opium production is almost out of control.
Last year, Afghanistan produced a record 93 percent of the world's opium — 17 percent more than in 2005. Opium production and heroin trafficking are fueling epidemic corruption and providing the Taliban with an estimated $30 million to $100 million per year for their war against Karzai's government and 40,000 U.S. and NATO-led troops.
The new counter-narcotics strategy combines poppy eradication with a massive grass-roots information campaign on the evils of opium, the substitution of crops for opium, stepped-up interdiction efforts, the targeting narcotics kingpins for arrest and financial rewards for provinces that slash poppy cultivation.
The State Department insists that ground and aerial spraying won't be conducted without Karzai's consent. But he's under enormous pressure to agree, the U.S. officials said.
Advocates argue that spraying is the most effective method to reduce poppy cultivation. They insist that the herbicide glyphosate — marketed in the United States as Roundup weed-killer — has long proved safe for humans and livestock.
Thomas Schweich, the State Department's coordinator for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, told a House of Representatives committee on Oct. 4 that Afghan eradication teams were able to destroy only about 10 percent of last year's poppy crop by hand and machine.
Moreover, wealthy warlords and tribal chiefs prevented the teams from destroying their crops and channeled them toward those grown by less powerful farmers and sharecroppers who depend on poppy to pay debts and feed their families, he said.
"We do need to crop eradicate, but it needs to be done differently than it's been done in the past," said Schweich. United Nations experts believe that destroying up to 30 percent of the poppy crop will deter widespread poppy planting next year, he added.
Schweich told McClatchy Newspapers in a brief interview Thursday that if Afghan officials "want to go ground, we'll go for that. If they want to go aerial, we'll go for that."
He warned, however, that ground-spraying teams would require extensive security. "You will have to fight your way in. You will have to fight your way out," he said.
Ali Jalali, a scholar at the National Defense University who was Afghanistan's interior minister when the spraying trials were conducted, recalled the "strong reaction" that the tests provoked. He warned that the outcry would be even greater if large-scale spraying is undertaken.
"There is a strong opposition from the Afghan government and a perception that it (herbicide) can harm animals and human beings and crops," he said. "Whether it is true or not, this is a perception there. The Taliban can exploit this."