KANDAHAR, Afghanistan - The acting commander of NATO forces in southern Afghanistan is hopeful of progress in the anti-narcotics offensive in the country that produces the bulk of the world's opium.
British Brig.-Gen David Hook told The Canadian Press on Sunday that rural Afghans will be able to abandon poppy cultivation gradually thanks to an expected boost in security and a better market for agricultural crops.
He says a military solution plays only a small part in the overall program by the Afghan government, provincial reconstruction teams and coalition troops to reduce the rural population's dependence on poppies.
Hook believes that NATO's role is to both ensure farmers plant grains, fruits and vegetables and that they have the infrastructure necessary to make those crops profitable.
"The best example is two years ago it took two days to drive from Kandahar to (the Kabul market) because the road was so bad," Hook said.
"It's now been resurfaced so you can drive it in six hours."
He feels that NATO and Afghan security forces have a head start that will be bolstered by the arrival of the American troops.
"We'll be able to extend that security over a larger portion of the population, which will give us greater humanitarian space," he said.
"It will allow greater socio-economic development, better governance to grow, and you can see how that gives the local Afghan farmer the opportunity to turn to a legal crop."
NATO's anti-narcotics effort are on a positive path , he added.
"How far we get down that path is something that's very difficult to judge," Hook said, noting it depended on how quickly the coalition and Afghan security forces and government could establish development programs.
"It's not going to be solved in a year," he said. "But I believe we'll have made positive progress by this time next year."
Recently, there's been an overall reduction in poppy crops due to weather, eradication efforts, seed distribution programs, a boost in agricultural prices and depressed poppy prices worldwide, he noted.
"It's not just a result of what we've done."
Still, NATO's anti-drug plan has been more clearly defined, Hook said.
"Member countries crystallized their position last year on whether or not they support the anti-narcotics strategy."
NATO is only targeting drug trafficking linked directly to the Taliban, the brigadier-general noted, adding that it feeds an estimated $400 million US each year into the insurgency - one of the primary reasons the allied forces want to stamp out its production.
"Any other counter-narcotics effort is a law enforcement effort, not a military effort," he said
Poppy - used in heroin production - is cultivated mostly in southern Afghanistan where Canadian troops are stationed.
Operation Diesel, a raid by combined British and Afghan forces in the Helmand province last February, netted 1,300 kilograms of raw opium, drug production paraphernalia, and weapons.
The Canadian Forces public relations office was unavailable for questions Sunday regarding Canada's role in the anti-narcotics operations.
Afghanistan produces 90 per cent of the world's opium, roughly 7,000 tonnes. Some two million Afghans are involved in drug trafficking, according to the Washington Post. About 157,000 hectares of land were given over to poppy farming in 2008, much lower than the 190,000 hectares reported in 2007.