- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai declared a “holy war” on Afghanistan’s runaway narcotics industry yesterday, calling for international aid to counter a threat he said was more dangerous than any faced by his country in more than 20 years of war.

Two days after being sworn in as the impoverished country’s first elected president, Mr. Karzai opened a conference on U.S.-sponsored plans to crack down on a trade that supplies most of the world’s heroin and risks turning Afghanistan into a narco-state.

Mr. Karzai, in an impassioned speech, also suggested Taliban militants were funding their insurgency with drug profits, and warned elders and officials from across the country to stop smugglers from poisoning its development.

“Opium cultivation, heroin production is more dangerous than the invasion and the attack of the Soviets on our country, it is more dangerous than the factional fighting in Afghanistan, it is more dangerous than terrorism,” Mr. Karzai said. “Just as our people fought a holy war against the Soviets, so we will wage jihad against poppies.”

Cultivation of opium poppies has skyrocketed since a U.S. bombing campaign drove the Taliban from power three years ago, fueling concern that billions spent on the effort to stabilize and reconstruct the country could prove in vain.

A recent U.N. survey found that cultivation rose nearly two-thirds this year to a record 324,000 acres. Bad weather and disease kept production from setting a record, although at 4,200 tons, it still accounted for 87 percent of the world’s opium supply.

Mr. Karzai, armed with a popular mandate from a landmark Oct. 9 presidential election, has said that countering narcotics will top the agenda of his five-year term.

Britain and the United States are training Afghan forces to destroy crops, raze laboratories and arrest top smugglers. A special high-security court and prison also are being set up.

But there also is concern that a heavy-handed approach could destabilize the country and prompt a violent backlash against the government and foreigners. Mr. Karzai has rejected U.S. proposals for a Colombia-style crop-dusting campaign to destroy poppy fields.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said at the two-day conference, which drew hundreds of local officials and tribal leaders, that Washington planned to spend a chunk of the $780 million it has earmarked for the anti-narcotics drive next year on helping farmers switch to legal crops.

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