Leading relief groups urged the United States to reconsider its strategy to counter Afghanistan's illegal narcotics industry, the world's largest, warning that destroying farmers opium crops could wreck the country's post-Taliban recovery.
In an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, more than 20 aid organizations active in Afghanistan said "premature and excessive" crop eradication could create such uproar that planned help for farmers cannot be delivered.
"Massive eradication efforts in 2005 could risk destabilizing large areas of the country, thereby undermining critical alternative livelihood and law enforcement initiatives," they said in Monday's letter, which was signed by international aid groups including CARE, Mercy Corps and Oxfam.
Cultivation of opium poppy has soared since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Last year's crop supplied nearly 90 percent of the world's opium, the raw material for heroin, and the trade accounted for about 40 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.
To bolster President Hamid Karzai's call for a "holy war" on the industry, the United States plans to spend $780 million for a crackdown on refiners, traffickers and corrupt officials using new police units and special courts.
But Afghan leaders and aid organizations have expressed dismay that only $120 million has been earmarked for rural development programs to, compared to $300 million for crop eradication programs.
U.S. and Afghan officials say such a shift might be considered, especially given signs that cultivation is down this year and after Karzai strongly opposed using crop dusters to destroy poppy fields.
The signatories to the letter said authorities should focus first on helping farmers find alternatives while prosecuting kingpins.
They also urged NATO and the United States to direct their troops in Afghanistan to help destroy drug laboratories and stop processing chemicals being brought into the country. Commanders of the two foreign forces have already said they will help with intelligence.
Karzai's government should purge its ranks of officials suspected of involvement, they added.
Focusing on eradication "could undermine the economy and devastate already poor families without giving rural development projects sufficient time to provide alternative sources of income," the letter said. "It has the potential to turn millions of Afghans against a government which is struggling to extend its reach and strengthen its authority."
By Stephen Graham