THE Afghan government is to launch a poppy eradication campaign in Helmand province which UK military commanders fear will antagonise farmers and drive them into the arms of the Taliban.

The drive to wipe out 20,000 acres of opium poppies is to be carried out near Lashkar Gah, the provincial capital, by 300 American-trained local counter-narcotics officers, supported by Afghan police units.

British commanders have distanced themselves from the initiative, but still fear a backlash against the 5200-strong UK garrison because the Kabul authorities have ruled out compensation for crops.

One said: "The whole thing is being driven by the US, which has become impatient with the lack of progress in cutting poppy cultivation and opium production.

"Our concern is that local villagers tend not to differentiate greatly between armed and uniformed strangers sent by their own government and armed and uniformed strangers from abroad. All they can see is someone in authority destroying their livelihood.

"When that happens, everyone perceived to be involved becomes a target."

Adam Isacson, an analyst at Washington's Centre for International Policy, said the US was applying the flawed template of Plan Colombia, the seven-year campaign to eliminate cocaine from the central American narco-state, to Afghanistan as a quick fix.

"If Afghanistan begins to eradicate on the same scale, five or six years down the line you'll have just as much poppy being grown and a lot more angry people who don't trust their government," he added. "It will be a disaster."

The government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, itself accused of involvement in an opium trade worth between £1 and £2bn a year, has forbidden aerial spray defoliants. The Afghan force sent in to destroy poppies has been ordered to use tractors and hand tools.

Critics say endemic police corruption means that farmers able to pay bribes to clearance teams will escape loss, while the poorest villagers will be left destitute and embittered.