- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 17, 2004

The Bush administration is dispatching the Drug Enforcement Administration’s top intelligence officer to Afghanistan to oversee counternarcotics operations.

Administration officials say it is one step in a plan being hammered out by the White House to curtail Afghanistan’s record-breaking poppy crop that threatens to turn the burgeoning democracy into a narco-state.

Harold D. Wankel, the DEA’s assistant administrator for the intelligence division, will report directly to Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador in Kabul. Mr. Wankel is a 34-year veteran of international drug wars and is seen by the administration as the right man to try to coordinate various counternarcotics programs.

“He will oversee counternarcotics out of the embassy,” said an administration official who asked not to be named. “It’s certainly an indication of the seriousness that we consider the problem which needs to be addressed.”

Both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill say the effort to eradicate opium-producing poppies in Afghanistan has been a failure. Privately, administration officials say the crop is likely to double this year, as well as the next. Afghanistan’s poppies make it the world’s largest supplier of heroin.

The White House has been coordinating a far-reaching interagency review that is likely to produce a new counterdrug strategy. One option is to bring the U.S. military into the drug war for the first time by having special units attack distribution points.

Current policy has coalition forces doing separate roles. Britain is in charge of overall policy. The Afghan army and police are supposed to eradicate the poppy crop. And the U.S. military plays a support role, providing training, intelligence and equipment.

But Afghanistan has been reluctant to attack the crops for fear of antagonizing regional warlords who dip into drug profits, say administration sources. President Hamid Karzai wants a peaceful countryside this fall when Afghanistan holds historic presidential elections.

One major question facing the intelligence community is the extent to which Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terror network are involved in Afghanistan’s drug trade.

Lawmakers who visit the region and speak with military and DEA personnel return to Washington to declare that bin Laden is now a drug kingpin.

Privately, Pentagon officials agree. But publicly, their comments are more guarded.

The Defense Intelligence Agency said in a recent statement: “We are certain that the narcotics industry benefits various extremist and terrorist groups, such as the Taliban [and] the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan that intend to undermine stability in Afghanistan and that work with al Qaeda. We cannot precisely estimate how much these groups rely on the narcotics trade for financial resources or logistical support, but we suspect that they receive substantial benefits from the trade.”

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