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US general expects record poppy crop in Afghanistan, promises to step up anti-drug effort

    KABUL, Afghanistan — The U.S. general in charge of NATO’s Afghanistan mission said Wednesday he expects another year of ‘‘explosive growth’’ in the country’s poppy fields, a harvest militants will turn into weapons for use against Afghan and NATO troops.
    Gen. Dan McNeill said NATO commanders in Europe have told him to step up the counternarcotics fight this year, ‘‘and I will.’’
    ‘‘The money associated with poppy and opiate production continues to appear to be very good,’’ McNeill told a news conference. ‘‘So without pressure or incentives or dissuasion to keep people from growing it, I expect the amount grown next year to increase.’’
    After a record haul in 2006, Afghan farmers increased opium production some 34 percent in 2007. Afghanistan last year produced 93 percent of the world’s opium, the main ingredient in heroin. Its export value was estimated at $4 billion.
    McNeill, the commander of the 39-nation International Security Assistance Force, recalled being shown a photo of a man and his two boys — both under age 10 — scraping the resin out of poppies in western Afghanistan.
    ‘‘When I was the age of those boys I remember two things my father taught me: One was to fish ... to this day I am still a pretty good fisherman. He also taught me to use hand tools. To this day I can make a piece of furniture,’’ he said. ‘‘If these two boys live as long as I do, ... what are they likely to do with the skills they learn at that age?’’
    NATO’s leaders in Brussels have made clear, McNeill said, that he is to use the current ISAF mandate to its fullest extent ‘‘to help the people of Afghanistan rid themselves of this scourge, and that will be our intent.’’
    He made clear that NATO will not be involved in eradication of poppies from the fields, but could bear down on drug growers and dealers connected to the insurgency.
    Links between drug growers and insurgents have been suspected to be growing in recent years. Proof of that was made clear when Afghan and NATO forces last month recaptured from militants the town of Musa Qala in Helmand province, the world’s largest poppy-growing region.
    When Afghan and NATO forces moved into the town, they discovered dozens of heroin labs and stockpiles of drugs worth $500 million in street value, according to U.S. Ambassador William Wood.
    McNeill estimated that insurgents get 20 percent to 40 percent of their income from drugs, but he said some U.N. officials have told him the number could be as high as 60 percent.
    ‘‘So when I see a poppy field, I see it turning into money that turns into (weapons) that are used to kill Afghans and members of the International Security Assistance Force,’’ he said.
    He said Afghanistan’s record opium crop last year was due in part to the abundant rains Afghanistan received, and that the country expects more good rainfall in 2008.
    Concerning recent unrest in Pakistan, Afghanistan’s eastern neighbor, McNeill said the Pakistan government acknowledges it has a problem with rising extremism and violence, particularly along the border, but ‘‘they’re beginning to take it on,’’ McNeill said.
    He said meetings between Pakistani and Afghan military chiefs have resulted in coordinated planning so that military missions on both sides of the border benefit. He said the Pakistani military has also adjusted its training, tactics and equipment to take on extremists.
    ‘‘I am optimistic that from a security perspective we will see some very good forward movement in what is typically considered the fighting season on both sides of the border this coming spring and summer,’’ he said.

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