- The Washington Times - Monday, October 25, 2004

Advocates of a direct combat role for the U.S. military in counternarcotics in Afghanistan have lost their fight inside the Bush administration, according to military sources.

For months, the Pentagon’s counterdrug office and government allies have pressed top officers to OK a new role in Afghanistan: hitting opium labs and supply routes that are funding anti-coalition forces, including Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda network.

But top officers have succeeded in repelling such arguments, saying drug-busting should largely remain a mission for law enforcement and that Afghan authorities should be trained to do the job. The U.S. military is, however, likely to take on a bigger role in assisting Afghan counternarcotics forces, the sources said.

The 18,000 American troops are already hard-pressed in Afghanistan, fighting insurgents along the Pakistani border, said one official.

“The attitude is, this is not a military mission; it’s a law-enforcement mission,” said the military source knowledgeable about the internal debate. This official said the White House could overrule the generals at some point, perhaps after the Nov. 2 election.

For now, most drug labs will stay off-limits since, in the opinion of military sources, the Afghan army does not yet have the capability to conduct sophisticated operations to find and destroy production sites.

The sources, who asked not to be identified, said that without direct U.S. military interdiction the poppy crop will continue to grow, producing more opium and heroin for the world market, with profits going to warlords, the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The hard-line Islamic Taliban rule, which was ousted by the allies in December 2001, did away with much of the poppy crop. But it also hoarded stashes of existing opium and heroin, driving up the price before being sold to sustain the regime. Since the liberation, farmers have gone back to the poppy plant in record numbers, rejecting government invitations to grow replacement crops, such as saffron.

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, told Congress earlier this year that the administration misjudged when harvesting would begin, so much of the crop escaped irradiation.

The British are the lead agency in Afghanistan for destroying the drug trade. But U.S. officials describe U.S. troops as too overburdened to do the job adequately.

“They don’t have the time, the energy, the personnel to mount the kind of long-term effort they need,” this official said.

Several prominent lawmakers, including House International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, have urged the White House in writing to order U.S. troops into the drug battle. Mr. Hyde has said he may work to get funds for foreign troops to do the job if the administration refuses.

In Colombia, the world’s largest producer of cocaine, U.S. military personnel play a large role by training anti-drug units and provide intelligence, but do not directly participate in operations against communist guerrillas who control the drug trade.

Statements last week by Army Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, the top commander in Afghanistan, suggests the military may take on that role. Gen. Barno, fresh from successfully protecting Afghan voters in an historic presidential election, was in Washington for discussion with Pentagon leaders.

Saying his troops already have a “full plate” of missions, Gen. Barno said troops would not become involved in crop eradication. “I think we will play larger roles in assisting in other aspects of the drug fight, particularly in the interdiction aspect of it,” he said.

“We also recognize that the threat of narcotics, particularly as we go into this coming year, is very significant and threatens our overall strategic objective,” he said. “So we’re assessing right now how the military will be able to re-look what our current roles are, within our capabilities and our missions, to provide further assistance in that fight.”

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