- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 3, 2004

Afghanistan is on a pace to increase illegal opium production by 200 percent over this year and next, yet the provisional government is failing to take decisive action against traffickers, Bush administration officials say.

The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told of errors that allowed this year’s bumper poppy crop to be harvested and turned into opium virtually free of interference by the Afghanistan government or the U.S.-led coalition.

These officials warn that unless poppy production is reduced, the nation risks falling into the hands of narco-warlords whose wealth and power would enable them to dominate the government.

At a hearing this summer of the House International Relations Committee, Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, said: “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. As a result, there has been very little progress to date in U.S. and coalition efforts against drug trafficking.”

Administration officials say that at this point, it appears that the Afghan government and coalition forces will not achieve even half their goal of eradicating 25 percent of this year’s crop.

Even in public, the State Department, which is leading the counternarcotics effort in Afghanistan, is guarded about claiming successes.

“We have begun, but only begun, an eradication program, an interdiction program to go along with an alternative-livelihood program” for farmers, said William B. Taylor, State’s coordinator for Afghanistan.

Government sources told The Washington Times that traffickers will produce somewhere between 5,400 metric tons and 7,200 metric tons of opium gum this year, an increase of 50 percent to 100 percent compared with 2003’s crop. At the rate land is being used to grow poppies, the tonnage could double in 2005. The 2004 crop may produce from 540 to 720 metric tons of heroin, primarily for the European black market.

President Hamid Karzai is trying to bring sufficient peace to the countryside to be able to hold presidential elections in October. This is preventing decisive counternarcotics operations, U.S. officials say, for fear of alienating powerful warlords who tap into the drug stream.

“The narcotics threat is potentially the most powerful political and economic destabilizing force in Afghanistan,” one official said.

The real threat to the United States, the sources said, is there is growing evidence that al Qaeda is tapping into the drug trade to finance operations. Afghanistan’s yearly opium production is estimated at $2 billion.

Exactly where the money is going is still the point of debate inside the administration. Military intelligence agents on the ground believe the money is divided among farmers, producers, warlords who allow production in their territory, traffickers and al Qaeda.

Nearly three years after ousting the Taliban government, the Pentagon’s strategy is to support Afghan counternarcotics units with equipment and intelligence information, said MaryBeth Long, the Defense Department’s top anti-drug policy-maker.

“Narcotics trafficking not only hinders our efforts to defeat extremists and the terrorist forces in Afghanistan, but also our efforts to support the stability and legitimacy of the Afghan central government and to protect the security of the United States,” Ms. Long told Mr. Hyde’s committee.

“The counternarcotics effort in Afghanistan will take time, and it must be sustained over many years, perhaps as long as a decade,” she said.

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