- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 15, 2004

The White House is planning a major shift in the U.S. military’s counternarcotics role in Afghanistan, with a leading option involving the first-time use of American troops to attack opium-distribution points.

The reassessment comes as both Democrats and Republicans warn that the current policy — which relies on the Afghan government to eradicate the poppy crop as the United States plays a support role — is simply not working.

Afghanistan’s heroin-producing poppy crop is booming. The Washington Times reported last week that internal Bush administration estimates put the poppy crop at more than doubling next year after as high as a 100 percent increase this year. The officials say Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been reluctant to start an all-out drug war so close to planned October elections, for fear of antagonizing regional warlords who dip into opium profits.

But the criticism in Washington has the White House rethinking its overall policy. In recent weeks, policy-makers at the Pentagon sent options to the National Security Council for a much broader role for about 19,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

A senior defense source said President Bush seems to be leaning toward approving a deeper military involvement. A top option is to organize troops into counternarcotics teams that would act on intelligence to attack drug smugglers at various distribution points before the poppy-produced opium reaches the borders.

Sean McCormack, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said no final decision has been made, but added that an inner-agency process is under way on counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan.

“We’re looking into the strategy to see if anything should be changed,” Mr. McCormack said.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who traveled to Afghanistan this week and discussed counterdrug policy with Mr. Karzai, said the coalition is looking at a “master plan” for dealing with the Afghan poppy crop.

As of now, Britain, whose addicts are prime users of heroin from Afghanistan’s poppies, has the lead anti-drug role. The U.S. State Department is the administration’s chief agent.

Asked whether U.S. troops will start going after drug trafficking, Mr. Rumsfeld said, “There are plans being fashioned now. I don’t want to get into whose troops could do what. We’ve got a lot we’re doing with respect to the terrorist networks. It requires an overall master plan, and that is what’s being developed.”

Bush administration officials are reluctant to say publicly that terror mastermind Osama bin Laden is tapping into the drug trade for cash.

But privately, senior officials say there is mounting evidence that operatives from his al Qaeda terror network are buying and reselling opium gum and heroin to offset lost cash as the result of Muslim charities being shut down by U.S. allies.

A public pronouncement that bin Laden is tied to drugs is likely to heighten calls for the military to dive more deeply into interdiction missions. Currently, the task force in Afghanistan confines itself to training local officials and providing intelligence. There is anecdotal evidence of coalition troops merely watching as drug shipments pass by.

All that would change if Mr. Bush adopts options offered by the Pentagon.

The United Nations’ 2003 report on the Afghan drug trade stated that farmers and traders netted $2.3 billion.

“Out of this drug chest, some provincial administrators and military commanders take a considerable share,” the U.N. report says. “The more they get used to this, the less likely it becomes that they will respect the law, be loyal to Kabul and support the legal economy.”

Bush administration officials told The Times last week that the crop this year will produce 5,400 metric tons to 7,200 metric tons of opium gum, an increase of 50 percent to 100 percent compared with 2003.

At a hearing this summer, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican and chairman of the House International Relations Committee, said narco-warlords might come to dominate Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy.

“Their continued influence is due in large part to the consequences of high levels of poppy production, which are putting Afghanistan on the road to becoming a narco-state,” Mr. Hyde said.

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