- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Time to re-read the tea leaves in Afghanistan. U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and NATO’s operational commander have just declared narcotics to be “the number one threat” to Afghanistan’s democracy and freedom. If not prescient, CENTCOM is on the mark. While little noticed, that simple pronouncement is path-breaking. No one on the ground dared to make such an assessment two years ago, even six months ago. But reality often intrudes on wishful thinking, and so it has here.

In 2006, Afghan narcotics traffickers are doing what you would expect. In a nation that is poor, illiterate, under-trained, predominantly road-less, has a poppy-favorable climate, no criminal justice system to speak of, and boasts a history of warlords and terrorist domination, they are planting, processing, trafficking, buying public officials, killing where necessary, financing what they like, settling in.

To be clear, Afghanistan is a beautiful nation. In fact, the raw majesty of its mountains takes your breath away. The toughness of the people, climate, oscillating temperatures, history and culture give one pause when thinking about its future. The country has made enormous strides toward a new and democratic way of life, but the way ahead is truly road-less. Mountains of work lie on the horizon, and are anything but inviting.

Nevertheless, CENTCOM and NATO have spoken. Now watch the debate in Congress and the administration. To follow that thread where it leads, there must now be new energy, priorities, timetables and resources. Oddly, in Iraq, we are getting the edge, regaining a degree of ballast Iraqi familiarity, even if a distant memory, with education, discipline, order, law, peace and prosperity is predictably lifting this long lumbering enterprise off the ground. It has all hallmarks, largely under-reported, of becoming permanently airborne. Iraq’s past reaffirms the nation’s conviction to win, to make a new way, and to make it stick. Gaps exist, but they are not getting wider. Objectively, there is lift.

Afghanistan is different. The whole strategy for success must quickly evolve. The narcotics monster is still holding the Afghan people’s wings in its ugly jaw. The only way to free them, really and finally, is to tackle that monster, making no more excuses. Yes, this will mean more money and public discussion, more infrastructure, and a more frontal assault on poppies, processors, traffickers, corrupt public officials, and drug-funded terrorists.

The irony is that what you are reading is already known to anyone who has spent time in, or makes policy relating to, Afghanistan. No rocket science here. Needed is a spotlight and some political courage, left and right, to get this ball rolling.

Policy makers in both parties who follow this issue know the hour glass is thinning at the top, mounding at the bottom. America must act, evolve, accept the challenge — even at this late hour — or risk getting pinned in those same jaws. They know that resources are few, public discussion muted, consequences worrisome and more easily kept in the bottom drawer. But in reality, CENTCOM and NATO are opening the bottom drawer. Some messy stuff in there.

Several weeks ago, the Afghan interior minister was accused of smuggling drugs and of letting captured traffickers go free. Why? “It was very late at night when they were arrested.” Meanwhile, the governor of the Helmand, the top heroin-producing region in the country, faces allegations of sheltered tons of opium. Increasingly, heroin is woven into the fabric of society. The drug quilt settles slowly over a cold nation.

What does all this mean? Where is the solution? Where is has always been. Provincial governors are widely viewed as corrupt, and for good reason. Governor-led anything is destined to fail. In 2003, governor-led eradication, the object of world-wide derision, proved this. Instead, we must accelerate a viable criminal justice system, boldly enlisting the Afghan people and leadership (still largely uncorrupt) in the mission of their lives: ending the narcotic monster’s grip on their future.

As Americans, we can rally Europeans, inspire Afghans, draw nations from around the globe to this mission, while giving both expertise and emphasis. We can let others know, as CENTCOM has begun to, that we think this battle matters. A new and robust combination of public diplomacy, anti-heroin education in country, alternative agriculture nationwide, credible poppy eradication (only possible with aerial spraying in a land with no roads), enforcement of the law, and a commitment to the toil of climbing the counter-narcotics mountain is the way ahead.

Perhaps the only thing worse than not reading tea leaves, is reading them and looking away. Ho-hum is our natural first reaction. The natural second one should be, let’s get on with it. CENTCOM has bravely broken the ice. It is now time for the rest of us to take the plunge.

Robert Charles, president of the Charles Group, was assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement 2003-2005, and initiated various police training and counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan during that period.

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