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Infrastructure can save Afghanistan from its opium dependency, says Jon Young.

Opium is such an embedded part of Afghan culture that grandmothers keep a block of it under their bed to keep the wolf from the door and parents rub a small amount on their children's lips to help them sleep at night.

Although opium eradication is not the purpose of the British Army in Afghanistan, it may provide the means for the poppy's end. It would have to be a cautiously considered end because poppy production, and the opiates such as heroin that can be derived from it, accounts for as much as two-thirds of the country's gross domestic product.

Britain is not getting involved directly in a country-wide poppy eradication programme, possibly because of the political wrangling that would involve.

But the presence of the Army is intended to provide the security that will allow the necessary infrastructure to support an alternative, more conventional, farming economy to be built.

Many believe it is the poor infrastructure that traps Afghan farmers into poppy production.

If a farmer has grown his poppies and sorted his block of opium, it is easy to put it in his jacket and take a dirt bike across the country to get the best price. To earn the same from wheat the quantities must be larger and therefore infrastructure must be greatly improved in order to transport it market.

The Alternative Livelihoods Program - a US Agency for International Development (USAID) funded scheme to nd alternatives to poppy production - embodies what some Afghanis see as both the mistakes of the past and the hopes for the future.

Its purpose is to manage the move from an economy based on poppies to one based on wheat. But many regard the scheme as the main reason for the country's continued turmoil.

ne senior government of ial tells me that the US missed an opportunity to pull Afghanistan from its opium dependency.

By 2004, the of cial had helped complete a strategy for spending some $111M (£55M) in USAID funding in the two southern provinces of Helmand and Kandaha. 'This was a very beautiful strategy on paper, ' he comments.

However, in the three years since the plan was launched, the companies and organisations charged with spending the money have done little to help those in the provinces, he says. 'According to the schedule they should have spent £10M a year. When they accounted the money in a meeting in USAID, they had spent, in total, just £1.8M in three years, ' he says.

'One of the reasons for the bad situation now is that the Americans did not spend their money on time or according to plan. They didn't bring changes to the life of farmers here.' If investment had improved the canal system, the drainage systems and the roads, and if the seeds and fertilisers promised had been distributed, there would not be the high unemployment in Helmand that drives people to join the Taliban, he says.

ealistically though, the poppy eradication will not come out of a ve-year plan to develop the country. It will instead come as the by product of a total radicalisation of the country's infrastructure, education and eventually its culture.

The abiding fear now - for both the locals and soldiers I met - is that the coalition forces will pull out. This will leave the Afghan people facing a nightmare of the West's making.

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