- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 21, 2004

The United States soon will begin a major drug-eradication effort in Afghanistan, targeting opium production that has risen twentyfold over the past two years to levels similar to peak production under the terrorist-tied Taliban regime.

The program will target not only Afghan opium producers who account for more than 75 percent of the world’s opium poppies, which are processed into heroin, but also will focus on drug warlords in that country, many of whom help finance global terrorism.

“We intend to be very aggressive, very proactive,” Assistant Secretary Robert B. Charles, who heads the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), said during a meeting yesterday with editors and reporters at The Washington Times. “This is a war we can win if we get ahead of the curve.”

The $310 million program, led by the INL, will seek to designate drug kingpins for extradition and prosecution, and to close the Afghan border to opium and heroin traffickers, the major suppliers to Western Europe, who also control 7 percent of the U.S. heroin market.

“We know that eradication and strong security works and, ultimately it will result in a stable, substantial [Afghan] government,” said Mr. Charles. “Drugs are a very big national security issue. We lost 21,000 kids in this country last year to drugs — that’s seven Twin Towers. We are heavily involved and fully committed.”

INL advises the president, secretary of state and other federal departments and agencies on combating international narcotics and crime. Its goals include reducing the amount of drugs smuggled into the United States and lessening the impact of international crime on Americans.

Mr. Charles said the counternarcotics and anticrime programs also complement the war on terrorism, through efforts to streamline and support foreign criminal-justice systems and those law enforcement agencies charged with counterterrorism.

He said opium production increased in Afghanistan because U.S. government efforts were, necessarily, focused elsewhere — mainly on counterterrorism and stabilizing the Afghan government. He also said eradication efforts, which are expected to begin next month in a few Afghan provinces and then expand nationwide, will be difficult because they will need to be done by hand in the remote regions of Afghanistan.

Mr. Charles also said efforts have to be made to stabilize Afghan free trade, giving opium-poppy growers an alternative crop. But, he added, those who continue to be involved in the drug trade need to be convinced they will be prosecuted and there is no economic advantage because of increased security.

“If the penalties are high enough, they will not grow heroin poppies,” he said. “We need to show the people that we are serious, that we want their country and their economy to be stable. It can be done.”

Under the now-defunct Taliban regime, the sale of opium and heroin by domestic warlords and international crime syndicates netted the regime $40 million a year, some of which went to Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorists, who hid and trained in that country.

Although Afghan heroin usually is transported to Western Europe, Pakistan and Iran, U.S. law enforcement authorities said Middle Eastern traffickers continue to smuggle the drug to ethnic enclaves in the United States.

Authorities have been concerned that Afghan heroin traffickers, with a renewed crop, might seek alliances with Colombian cartels now operating in this country, or even compete with them. They said an Afghan resurgence in heroin could mean they are looking to expand their market into the United States by undercutting the Colombians.

Mr. Charles said a Taliban order in 2000 banning the cultivation of opium as “un-Islamic” was most likely a public-relations ploy that allowed drug traffickers in that country to stockpile supplies of opium and boost its price.

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