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US and Europe 'doing little to stem opium flow'

By CNN's Craig Francis

(CNN) -- Efforts by the United States and Europe to stem the flow of opium from central Asia have been slammed as doing more harm than good.

The International Crisis Group (ICG), a private lobby group headed by a former Australian foreign minister and ex-Finnish president, said their responses so far have been "limited in scope, funding and imagination."

Afghanistan is universally regarded as the world's largest exporter of opium, and its derivative heroin. The proceeds of the Afghan drug industry are widely believed to be a major source of funding for global terrorist groups.

According to Russian and international anti-drug officials, Afghanistan's once ruling Taliban relied on the opium trade to finance its government and military operations, bringing in an estimated $10 million to $50 million annually.

Direct links exist in Afghanistan between the drug business, arms purchases for the country's civil war and terrorist activities, the ICG says.

Afghanistan's neighbors have also suffered from a widespread drug addiction, with Pakistan and Iran having the highest rates of heroin addiction in the world.

Meanwhile, experts argue that the illegal trade has a wider impact, undermining political security in the central Asian region.

Any attempt to encourage stable government and eliminate corruption in Afghanistan must also combat drug growers and traffickers, the ICG has argued.

The lobby group, with former Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Gareth Evans as president and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari as chairman, issued its scathing report on Monday, urging greater cooperation and urgency among central Asian nations and donor countries in tackling the drug issue.

But the report left little doubt that it will be a massive challenge to find solutions, with central Asian governments such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan often "unwilling even to seek regional solutions (with) official complicity."

'Lack of coordination'

The financial lure of growing opium ensures the problem will not disappear with the demise of the Taliban. But Western countries have done little to redress one of the greatest destabilizing factors in Afghanistan, says the ICG.

"Donor efforts have likewise suffered from a lack of coordination and a short-term mentality. Donors have tended to view drugs almost entirely as a policing issue with little consideration of broader development and security angles," the ICG said in its report, Central Asia: Drugs and Conflict.

According to the ICG, the United States has done little to curb the opium trade because it believed Afghanistan played an insignificant role in its own domestic drug problem.

While the Taliban banned the cultivation of opium poppies last year, there is evidence, anti-drug officials say, that Afghanistan is still supplying the world with opium from its large stockpiles.

The European Union too was not exempt from condemnation, with the ICG arguing that its focus on policing and border patrols might just have added more stress to a region already fraught with ethnic and religious tensions, border problems and severe poverty, the ICG argued.

"Greater police and judicial powers create new opportunities for corruption and pack jails with those too poor to buy their way out. Border controls divide communities and stifle economic opportunities," it said.

If the problem is to be tackled seriously from within, the ICG said regional law enforcement agencies needed to cooperate.

Central Asian countries also need to stop treating drug users and HIV-infected individuals as criminals, the ICG says, as well as pass anti-discrimination laws and carry out public education programs to change attitudes.

Harm reduction measures such as needle exchanges and methadone therapy also needed to be a top priority to reduce the threat of HIV, according to the ICG.

If Afghanistan is to achieve lasting peace, the ICG concluded that a "well-funded program that moves beyond interdiction to tackle all problems associated with drug production and trafficking, including both the general problems of poverty and conflict and the more specific ones of crop substitution, corruption, and HIV/AIDS" is needed.


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