KABUL - In the face of pressure from the American government, the administration of President Hamid Karzai is seeking the formation of an international scientific committee to review the safety of chemical herbicides to combat Afghanistan's opium poppy crop, Afghan and Western officials say.
The Afghan government has also formed two of its own committees to study the issue and, with a new growing season beginning this month, has vowed to conduct a speedy review process, Afghan officials said. "We are working around the clock," Obaidullah Ramin, Afghanistan's minister of agriculture, irrigation and livestock, said in an interview last week.
The moves, which follow a visit to Kabul earlier this month by a State Department delegation that briefed Afghan cabinet officials on the efficacy and safety of the chemicals, suggest a new willingness on the part of the Afghan government to reconsider its opposition to chemical eradication.
Since the beginning of the year, the Karzai administration has said it is adamantly opposed to the use of chemical herbicides to eradicate poppy fields. But in recent weeks, the American government has renewed its pressure on the Afghans to endorse at least a trial ground-based spray program using glyphosate, a widely sold weed killer that has also been used in American-financed counternarcotics programs in the Andes and elsewhere.
The Karzai administration has been reluctant, in part, because of concerns about the possible environmental and public health consequences. Afghan officials have also argued that a program with American-financed chemical eradication squads wiping out farmers' livelihoods would hand the Taliban rebels a major propaganda tool and risk driving farming communities into the insurgency's camp.
"We have no questions about its efficacy as a herbicide," Faizullah Kakar, the Public Health Ministry's deputy minister for technical affairs, said of glyphosate. "The issue is the health impacts and the social and political impacts."
Mr. Kakar and Mr. Ramin, the agriculture minister, have been among the Karzai administration's biggest critics of chemical eradication. Western officials say endorsements by the two men would be critical in persuading the entire Afghan government to approve spraying.
Mr. Kakar, who received advanced degrees in toxicology and epidemiology in the United States, said in an interview last week that while living in the United States, he had used glyphosate to kill weeds in his yard. But there, he pointed out, the water supply is better protected and regulated. "In Afghanistan, that's not the case," he said.
Glyphosate, he said, "can run into ditches and run into rivers and that's the water that the whole population is using." Mr. Kakar also said he had encountered some findings that suggested there might be a link between glyphosate and health problems.
American officials in Kabul and Washington said the State Department was assembling a list of candidates for an international committee. "Our goal is to very quickly pull this together," a State Department official in Washington said in a telephone interview on Saturday, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the topic for attribution. He said the plan was to submit a list of names for consideration to the Karzai administration within two weeks.
The Afghan government has already formed committees in the Public Health Ministry and in the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock to conduct parallel reviews, Mr. Ramin said.
"This is the most-studied herbicide in the world," the State Department official said. "We've told them, 'The one thing you shouldn't worry about are the health impacts.'"
But American officials acknowledge that assuaging Afghans' fears about the safety of glyphosate is only part of their challenge. An extensive public information campaign would also have to be carried out to dispel fears about the chemical's political impacts.
© 2007 The New York Times