- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2005

Hard numbers tell a hard story in Afghanistan. We have won the war, won the peace and seeded a democracy, but could lose it all overnight — to a runaway heroin trade. In the wake of institutionalized drug trafficking, history teaches us to expect a cascade — widening government corruption, entrenched organized crime, indiscriminate violence and, in all likelihood, a swift reversal of fortunes.

Worse, Afghanistan’s heroin trade already forms the backbone of funding for identifiable regional “extremists.” OK, let’s not gild the lily — identifiable terrorists. Among them, Hizbi-Islami Gulbaddin (HIG), intent on violence against the Afghan government; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), dedicated to a radical “pan-Arab caliphate” across Central Asia; what remains of the Taliban and possibly even leftovers of al Qaeda feed off the heroin trade.

To be certain, what has been achieved in Afghanistan through American leadership, vision, courage and commitment is no less than a miracle. Most of al Qaeda has been uprooted, run into the wilderness and now is short on oxygen. Dignity has been restored to millions of war-weary, freedom-starved people. Life-changing institutions of self-government have been given room to grow. President Bush and Americans in uniform saved these souls. Perhaps countless others.

These are not small victories: A constitution ratified in January 2004. Rights for women; three serve as government ministers, one as a provincial governor. Training of more than 40,000 Afghan police, and 20,000 Afghan National Army members. Afghanistan’s first free presidential election in October 2004. A major road linking the nation’s two largest cities, Kabul and Kandahar. Independent radio stations, countless clean water wells, medical facilities, schools, irrigation, an emerging airline, a Central Bank.

All this is good news. There is light in a formerly dark land. The Afghan People dared to hope, and we sacrificed to make their dream of freedom — and ours of security — a reality. A reversal would mock what has been achieved and sacrificed.

So here are the haunting numbers. In 2002, there were 30,000 hectares (with 21/2 acres per hectare) of heroin poppy in Afghanistan. By 2003, there were 61,000 hectares.

That 2003 crop produced about $2.8 billion in illegal proceeds. We know the proceeds trickled back into pockets — not of farmers, who get a tiny fraction — of terrorists named above and major traffickers.

By late 2003, some U.S. officials advocated aggressive action against the heroin crop. They pressed for aerial spraying of the kind that eradicated nearly 100 percent of the Colombian coca and heroin crop annually for the past two years, producing an overall decline in planting of more than 30 percent. They pressed alternative development tied to spraying. They argued heroin poppies were easier to kill from the air, personnel more secure, results more measurable, long-term costs lower, logistics easier in a nation without roads, and — most importantly — it would be done with a safe, EPA-approved herbicide used successfully in Colombia and across U.S. agriculture.

Separately, they pressed a redoubling of heroin interdiction, placing it on par with counterterrorism. The idea was to alter U.S. military guidance so that counternarcotics, especially destruction of heroin warehouses and labs, would be part of the Central Command’s military mission. Finally, they suggested a mid-2004 gathering of major mullahs in Kabul to begin robust public diplomacy, maximizing sharia law’s moral opposition to heroin. None of those efforts was pursued.

By late 2004, heroin hectares had jumped from 61,000 to 206,000, a 239 percent increase. This is the largest recorded increase of any drug crop in history, and the largest absolute number of hectares ever grown by any one country. Value? Roughly $7 billion. Swift aerial spraying by the State Department’s air wing, proactive military interdiction of heroin stockpiles, robust public diplomacy — including demand reduction — were again advocated. Alternative strategies were chosen. A desire to avoid short-term instability trumped counternarcotics history.

Now, we wait for the shadow in 2005. We will not know until November. A dramatic downturn in growing would be a success against this enormous crop. Failure would be signaled by minimal eradication, ground eradicators fired upon, gradual increases in Afghan terrorist incidents later this year, perhaps 100,000 hectares under cultivation (in a country where only 3 percent of arable land is cultivated), indications of corruption in government, widening crime, unsettled parliamentary elections, or palpable indifference.

America’s commitment and successes in Afghanistan have been extraordinary, unprecedented, perhaps epic. There is a real danger they will all be washed out on a wave of heroin growth, drug-related corruption and terrorist resurgence.

Robert Charles, former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, 2003-2005, is president of the Charles Group in Gaithersburg, Md.

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