An Outbreak in Afghanistan

Omardin, a farmer in the Pacheeragam district in Nangarhar province, pointed to the contents of a black plastic bag. Inside, he said, was a substance he claimed was sprayed from an airplane as part of a drug-eradication effort in the country. He said his son has been made ill by the chemicals.

"I never even bothered to grow poppy, but because of the Americans, my God-given only son is sick," he said, shaking with anger. "His skin is sore and his body aches."

As his eyes welled up with tears, Omardin vowed, "If my son dies, I will join the Taliban, and I will kill as many Americans as I can find."

Omardin is not the only person who believes that foreigners – perhaps the Americans – are spraying opium crops with herbicides here as part of a counter-narcotics program.

Eyewitnesses in the eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar have reported seeing aircraft spraying poppy fields. Doctors in the region, meanwhile, said the sudden outbreak of skin diseases and respiratory ailments are due to a mysterious chemical they have so far been unable to identify.

Afghan government officials have promised to investigate these claims. Jawed Ludin, spokesman for Afghan president Hamid Karzai, denies that the government authorized such aerial spraying in the Khogiani and Shinwari districts of Nangarhar. An official delegation is now studying soil samples taken from poppy fields in the area.

Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer of opium, accounting for three-quarters of global output. According to newly released United Nations statistics, opium cultivation in 2004 increased by 64 percent over the previous year.

Worried that Afghanistan may be evolving into a "narco-mafia" state, the United States, Europe and the United Nations have pledged to get tough on the opium trade. But the US military has insisted that its forces are not involved in crop eradication.

"US troops are not involved are not involved in eradication, which would include the spraying of poppy fields which we do not do," US military spokesman Major Mark McCann told Agence France-Presse last week.

A US embassy spokesperson in Kabul declined to comment, saying questions on the subject could be asked in an upcoming press conference. Last month, however, the US Drug Enforcement Agency announced that it had joined with the State Department and the Department of Defense in developing a new Counternarcotics Implementation Plan for Afghanistan. Under the program, the DEA announced that it will assist in destroying clandestine labs and seizing precursor chemicals, raw opium and opiate stockpiles.

To achieve that, the DEA said it is expanding its presence in Afghanistan by permanently stationing additional special agents and intelligence analysts in the country to enhance Afghanistan's counternarcotics capacity.

In addition, the DEA announced it would deploy foreign advisory and support teams to Afghanistan early next year to provide guidance and conduct bilateral investigations that will identify, target and disrupt illicit drug trafficking organizations. These teams, the agency said, will help with the destruction of existing opium storage sites, clandestine heroin processing labs and precursor chemical supplies.

US law enforcement agencies such as the DEA and the FBI already maintain a sizable presence in Afghanistan.

Haji Din Mohammad, the governor of Nangarhar province, is convinced that aerial eradication is already underway and that the United States is behind it. At a recent press conferen, he said, "The crops were eradicated, and farmers have seen big planes flying over the fields and spraying."

And in a separate press conference, General Mohammad Daoud, deputy interior minister in charge of counter-narcotics characterized aerial eradication as "illegal."

Asked about official US denials of their involvement in such a program, Din Mohammad said, "They control the airspace, and no plane can fly over Afghanistan without their permission."

Local residents blame the Americans for an outbreak of illness.

Sayed Asadullah, 47, a resident of Kaga district, Nangarhar province, showed a reporter a dozen children between the ages of 10 and 14 who complained of severe body aches.

Abed, 11, said, "A few days after the chemicals were sprayed, I found I had a sore throat and this terrible ache."

Mohammad Sediq, 14, said his throat was hoarse from the substance sprayed on the fields.

"Ever since I ate some spinach from our field next to the opium field, I've had a sore throat," he said.

"It is all the result of the Americans' chemicals," said Asadullah.

Others blamed the crop spraying for the death of livestock.

A resident of Asmar district, Konar province, said 14 of his animals had died. "We took all our sick animals to the veterinarian, but he couldn't do anything," he said.

Dr Abdul Ghafoor, the veterinarian who examined the animals, said they were suffering from serious respiratory problems. Ghafoor said he suspected the animals were suffering from a form of chronic asthma caused by inhalation of poisonous chemicals.

"This kind of disease is rare in Afghanistan," he said.

Several doctors in the region also blamed exposure to chemicals for the outbreak of various illnesses among their human patients.

Dr Samiullah Akbari, an ear, nose and throat specialist, said, "Those chemicals are insecticides for destroying crops. If human beings ingest them, they cause very bad stomach ailments."

Dr Abdullah Momand, who specializes in treating skin diseases, said the cases of skin irritation were "undoubtedly" caused by contact with a chemical agent. Dr. Momand was pessimistic about the ability of Afghan medicine to deal with the outbreak.

"To tackle these illnesses would require a huge amount of money," he said. "Treatment is difficult in Afghanistan, and the preventive care patients need cannot be found in these clinics."

 This article originally appeared in Afghan Recovery Report, a project of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

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