Dr Charles Tannock

Member of the European Parliament for London

Highlighting Afghan problems ahead of Berlin conference

EU Reporter - 16 February 2004

By Ann Cahill

MEPs have suggested that the best way to solve the dangers posed by Afghanistan is to buy up the entire opium production from its farmers and destroy it.

An estimated 90% of the heroin on Europe's streets and 75% of world production comes from the country the US and its allies freed from the Taliban over two years ago.

The Irish Presidency is placing particular emphasis on the Asian country and for the first time this week’s Troika to that country will be led by a Foreign Minister.

The UN has warned that the situation is increasingly dangerous despite the EU and the US in particular pouring money into the country.

Elections due to be held this summer are in danger of being delayed because not enough people are being registered because of violence.

At the same time poppy production is back to what it was before the Taliban took over and the country had bumper crops in 2002 and 2003. The security situation is worsening with foreigners and others involved in infrastructure, registering voters and security being beaten back to the capital Kabul, the only place under government control.

The Troika, led by Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen accompanied by his Dutch counterpart Bernard Bot and External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten comes just weeks before the Berlin International Conference. This will review the political and financial challenges facing the country to which the EU has pledged €1 b over five years.

The European Parliament in adopting a report by Andre Brie last week agreed with the Commission’s conclusion that the lack of security and the slow pace of reconstruction have trapped Afghanistan in a vicious circle.

However the suggestion by British Conservative MEP Charles Tannock that international funds be used to buy up the entire poppy production has so far not been adopted.

Sources in the Commission say the problem is getting agreement on the best way to tackle all the problems security, drugs, terrorism and warlords, since they are all part of the same coin. Britain has taken over international coordination of anti narcotics activities while Germany is involved in Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRT) at a cost of €500 m. These are basically military units often with civil engineers and one of whose tasks is to undertake small reconstruction projects like schools and irrigation. "We want to have these PRTs to buy hearts and minds", said a Commission source.

At the same time work on building up a native police and military force is going ahead. This is essential to stamp out the heroin trade, but another vital element is to ensure farmers can grow alternative crops.

The EU is this year contributing €100 million to help farmers change over. But the most difficult part of reducing poppy production is to do it without unleashing the war lords.

At the same time work on establishing a democratic government is going ahead and elections are scheduled to take place this summer.

However the lack of security is threatening this on a number of fronts, not least in the registering of voters. At least 10 million people need to be registered Poppy fields in Afganistan to ensure that any election is representative but so far despite huge efforts just 600,000 have been signed up, mostly from two or three regions. Only 30% of these are women.

The Berlin conference at the end of March which it is hoped will be chaired by the Afghans, will be asking countries to pledge further funds. The US and Japan are expected to do so and pressure will be put on the Arab and Gulf states make good on the pledges they made but mostly failed to deliver on in 2001.

Ann Cahill is Europe Correspondent for the Irish Examiner.