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The Financial Times

Bogotá set to assist in Kabul’s drugs battle
By Andy Webb-Vidal in Bogotá

August 8 2006

Colombia, the world’s top producer of cocaine, may provide a permanent anti-narcotics training programme for Afghanistan, the world’s largest supplier of heroin, to help it combat the flow of illegal drugs.

An agreement for such a plan could follow the return last weekend of an exploratory mission to Kabul by four Colombian anti-narcotics police, and the arrival in Bogotá of Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Washington, Colombian police have stepped up anti-drugs efforts under the US-backed government of President Alvaro Uribe, who this week began a second four-year term.

The area in Colombia cultivated with coca, the shrub from which cocaine is derived, has dropped from about 358,000 acres in 2001 to 212,000 acres last year, according to official figures. Colombia is also close to wiping out plantations of poppies used to make heroin.

In Afghanistan, poppy crops have increased in recent years, according to the United Nations, from about 30,000 acres in 2001 to some 250,000 acres last year, posing a big problem for the government of President Hamid Karzai.

Bogotá is keen to share its anti-drugs experience with Afghanistan, and the approach has been brokered by José Serrano, Colombia’s ambassador to Vienna.

Some members of the US Congress, such as Henry Hyde, Republican chairman of the House international relations committee, as well as the British government, have also backed the idea.

Dennis Hastert, speaker of the House of Representatives, said in a letter last week to General Jorge Castro, Colombia’s police chief, that as a result of the initiative, “Afghan forces fighting narco-terrorism in their country are much better prepared to fight the growing opium trade in the region”.

The Colombian police found that Afghan poppy plantations were protected by rival armed groups similar to those in Colombia, where coca fields and laboratories are largely controlled by guerrilla and paramilitary outfits.

One member of the Colombian police team told the FT they also saw evidence that human couriers, or “mules”, were using the same methods to transport drugs out of Kabul airport as they do from Bogotá.

“The problem you have [in Afghanistan] is very similar to what we have in Colombia,” said Lt Col Oscar Atehortua, who led the team to Kabul. Draft aid plans include sending Colombian police instructors to Kabul, and Afghan police officers for training in Colombia.

But a controversial element of anti-narcotics efforts was aerial fumigation with herbicide, which was used extensively in Colombia but which would be more complicated in Afghanistan, narcotics experts said.

The illegal heroin trade employs far more people and accounts for a larger proportion of economic activity in Afghanistan than in Colombia, making alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers crucial.

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