- The Washington Times - Friday, December 5, 2003

KABUL, Afghanistan — The United States is seeking allies in a major campaign to destroy Afghanistan’s coming opium crop, having concluded that Afghan drugs now represent al Qaeda’s principal source of income.

The U.S. initiative, outlined by a senior American official in Kabul, reflects the failure of British efforts to curb poppy production, which has exploded here since the downfall of the Taliban two years ago.

According to separate reports by the United Nations and the CIA, about 3,600 tons of opium resin were produced this year in an unprecedented 28 of Afghanistan’s 32 provinces. The crop earned poppy farmers and traffickers $4.3 billion, or more than 50 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product.

This year’s harvest was up on last year’s bumper poppy crop — the first since the Taliban’s fall — despite devastating crop diseases, a government eradication campaign, and British-led efforts to train local police and provide poppy farmers with alternative livelihoods. Next year’s crop is expected to be even larger.

“The Brits will stay in the lead — we love ‘em, we trust ‘em — but we’re facing the fact that their efforts have had absolutely no impact on opium tonnage whatsoever,” the American official said.

“Meanwhile we’re seeing that this issue affects our counterterrorism interests: It’s become more and more clear that the principal source of financing for al Qaeda and the Taliban is Afghan drugs.”

According to the plan, the United States would persuade a moderate Muslim ally — either Turkey or a Balkan state — to deploy about 400 soldiers to Afghanistan to provide security for a similar number of Afghan counternarcotics police.

Sweeping Afghanistan from south to north, the eradication team would arrive in each province during the two-week window in the opium poppy’s growth cycle when it can be plowed up without regenerating.

U.S. intelligence sources believe this would serve the dual purpose of destroying at least 25 percent of Afghanistan’s poppy, and flushing many Taliban and al Qaeda operatives from cover.

“This is going to be the biggest pheasant drive you’ve ever seen,” the American official said.

A British diplomat in Kabul this week confirmed the American plan, but questioned whether a foreign force could be deployed in time for the next opium harvest.

“To start eradicating in the south, you’d have to be ready by February, which looks unlikely,” the diplomat said.

America’s sudden attention to Afghanistan’s drug production represents a major shift in its tactics in the war on terror. Previously, it left counternarcotics to its European allies, chiefly Britain, 95 percent of whose heroin derives from Afghan opium, according to British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

British and Afghan officials in Kabul privately complain that their efforts have been severely compromised by the U.S. military campaign against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The United States employs local warlords to prosecute its war, including many believed to be involved in opium production. U.S. special forces in southern Hilmand province said last week they routinely patrol opium fields, but had received no orders to interfere.

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