- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Drug policy chief John Walters yesterday said it could take as long as three years for the United States and its allies to ensure that Afghanistan does not return to the opium business as a key source of revenue.

Mr. Walters called efforts to restore Afghanistan's schools, health and economic institutions, and its police and security infrastructure a battle between allied forces and that nation's illicit poppy growers, who seek to return to business as usual.

"For the first time in history, we have an opportunity to influence the worldwide opium problem, working with our allies to do as much as we can to eradicate and disrupt the opium trade," he told editors and reporters at The Washington Times.

"It will require staying power, perhaps as long as two to three years, but banning opium production has got to be a priority," he said. "We cannot allow Afghanistan to again become a haven for illicit money, a haven for terrorists."

Mr. Walters, who heads the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, also said Hamid Karzai, the leader of Afghanistan's interim government, has made "outstanding" progress in curtailing opium production in that country "even at substantial risk to himself and his government."

He said Mr. Karzai and other Afghan leaders have been threatened, and some involved in the eradication efforts have been killed.

The former Taliban regime, which was aligned closely with terrorist Osama bin Laden, collected millions of dollars a year in profits from illicit opium sales with some of the cash going to terrorists who hid and trained in Afghanistan.

After the Taliban took control in 1996, Afghanistan accounted for more than 70 percent of the global supply of poppies, the source crop for opium and heroin. Between 80 percent and 90 percent of the heroin sold in Europe was processed from opium produced and stockpiled in Afghanistan.

Drug Enforcement Administration officials have estimated that profits from opium sales netted the Taliban $40 million annually, with some estimates ranging far higher.

Mr. Walters said Afghan police and security officials have to be trained on how to eradicate and disrupt that country's opium production and that the job would fall mainly on military authorities and others from the United States, Great Britain and Germany.

He said major buyers of Afghan opium and heroin were in Britain and Germany, and that those countries had to be willing to "pay the price" to eliminate the drug's production and shipment to Europe.

Mr. Walters noted that the British already had begun eradication efforts, eliminating 1,000 acres just last week, and that Germany had begun to train Afghan police and security officials in anti-drug measures.

He said those efforts already have seen some results, adding that the purity of heroin arriving in Britain from Afghanistan is down.

"When the purity of the product drops, the market is under stress," he said. "It's like the Old West; when the supply is off, they start watering down the whiskey."

Mr. Walters noted that the first big test of the effectiveness of the effort to reduce opium production will come in October, when farmers there begin the planting season.

The crop generally is harvested for raw opium gum, from which heroin is made, between March and May.

"We will be in a better position next fall to figure out where we are," he said.

"We need to make a substantial effort to ensure that we are successful, but not pay the lion's share," he said. "It's time Europe stepped up to the plate."

The Bush administration's anti-drug strategy is focused on reducing supplies from foreign countries, undermining domestic demand and providing effective drug treatment to addicts.

The president has vowed to cut illegal drug use in America by 10 percent within the next two years and by 25 percent within five years.

President Bush called for $19.2 billion to fight illegal drugs, a 2 percent increase over current spending.

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