- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Colombia is offering the right kind of tailored counter-drug assistance to Afghanistan, under an initiative pushed forward by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee. The news is encouraging: Colombia will be helping Afghanistan bolster its counter-drug aptitude and Washington is becoming savvier about how to address the Afghan drug scourge.

As Rowan Scarborough reported last week in this newspaper, Colombian authorities will be coaching their Afghan counterparts on counter-drug tactics, not fundamental strategy. That is critical, because any attempt to apply the Colombian counter-drug model, which relies heavily on aerial spraying, to Afghanistan could have disastrous effects. Under the new alliance, which was initiated by a letter that Mr. Hyde sent to the Gen. Jorge Castro, director-general of the Colombian national police, Colombians will be teaching Afghans how to lay siege to drug labs, and pursue and capture high-value targets. The Colombians will also share some intelligence strategies.

The parameters of the alliance are appropriate. Afghan authorities should be targeting the kingpins involved in refining poppies into heroin and trafficking the drug, rather than the Afghan farmers growing poppies. Afghanistan has not yet established a national economy that offers its citizens broad opportunities for legitimately earning a living. Nearly half of the country’s $4.5 billion economy comes from opium cultivation and trafficking. Unless the United States and other donor countries can raise the substantial funds that would allow farmers to subsist on legitimate crops, efforts to eradicate poppy fields are likely to fail and needlessly alienate the population.

Washington, though, has been ambivalent about what counter-drug advice to give to Kabul. The Bush administration’s $780 million Plan Afghanistan, for example, appears to focus excessively on crop eradication, while uniformed military officials on the ground in Afghanistan have long been warning about the potential consequences of an aggressive eradication policy.

The Afghan heroin trade poses serious problems for the government in Kabul, and officials are wise to try to rein it in. The drug trade enriches some Tajik and other tribal chiefs not involved in attacks on coalition soldiers, but remnant of the Taliban and al Qaeda also benefit. Also, the tribal leaders enriched by drug trafficking can afford to be more resistant to Kabul’s authority.

The government in Kabul has had some success in combating the drug trade. This year, the land used for opium cultivation was reduced by 21 percent, according to the United Nation’s anti-drug chief Antonio Maria Costa, due to the government’s success at promoting the growing of alternative crops and a significant decline in market prices in Afghanistan for poppies.

Washington should resist pushing Kabul into overplaying its hand, though. Neither Kabul nor coalition troops can afford to alienate the ordinary Afghan people, upon whom stability and counter-terror efforts depend.

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