- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 21, 2004

Afghanistan’s proliferating poppies pose an obvious threat to the government in Kabul, U.S. forces and the countries that opium and heroin are trafficked in, often en route to Western Europe. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently said an overall master plan is being developed to deal with Afghanistan’s growing drug production. Such a plan is needed, but U.S. and NATO planners should craft it with a long-term vision.

Mr. Rumsfeld recently noted, “The problem is a demand problem, in its essence.” Demand will find its supply, he said. More narrowly, though, producing countries such as Afghanistan do have a supply problem, he added, because of all the associated problems that production brings. For Afghanistan, those problems are particularly alarming, since the heroin trade can enrich pro-Taliban and al Qaeda factions.

Tackling the drug trade could also create a new set of troubles, though. The deployment of U.S. military personnel on counter-narcotics missions risks the corruption of U.S. troops. For that reason, the military has traditionally steered clear of assuming a counter-drug role. Also, a number of heavily armed Tajik tribal leaders that have not been hostile to U.S. forces could lash out if their drug interests are directly and aggressively challenged. Finally, poppy growing and heroin production and trafficking are among the few ways to make a living in Afghanistan. If that trade is to be countered, Afghans need to have other sources of income.

Nearly half of Afghanistan’s $4.5 billion economy comes from opium cultivation and trafficking. Afghanistan has suffered over two decades of war and a prolonged drought. Last year in Afghanistan, according to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 1.7 million people were directly engaged in producing more than 3,600 metric tons of opium, which amounts to three-quarters of the world’s illicit opium production. In a UNODC survey, 69 percent of last year’s poppy farmers said they planned to increase their production.

Unless the United States and the international community can raise funds to allow farmers to subsist on legitimate crops, efforts to eradicate poppies in the fields are likely to fail. Donor countries — particularly those upset at seeing Afghan heroin pushed on their urban youth — should see development funds as part of the counter-narcotics effort. But security forces, preferably Afghan forces, can be involved now in aggressive interdiction efforts on main roads and borders. Laboratories can also be targeted by security forces.

This highlights the need to deploy more Provisional Reconstruction Teams under NATO’s umbrella and bolster efforts to train Afghan police and national army forces. Currently, there are only two such NATO teams working in Afghanistan. Without the cover provided by these teams, aid workers will continue to be targeted and killed.

A British-trained Afghan drug interdiction force is slated to be 200-strong. A German-led effort on law-enforcement training has produced about 20,000 police officers. But the international community currently is committing about one-fourth the level of per capita support to Afghanistan that it did in Bosnia. Without greater support, it is difficult to see how any master plan could reduce opium and heroin production.

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