- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Policy battle lines are forming over how to handle poppy production in Afghanistan, with Pentagon civilians increasingly pitted against the uniformed leadership on the ground in Afghanistan. This page has expressed concern about the potential pitfalls of aggressive poppy eradication, and that view is now being strongly voiced by military commanders. The military leadership has a more tactile and immediate sense of developments in Afghanistan, and their opinion should be carefully heeded by Washington policy-makers.

Thedebateoverdrugpolicyin Afghanistan is not being fueled by staunch political or ideological differences. Instead, each side has weighed the complicated factors and reached differing judgments. According to a Monday article in the Financial Times, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been urging U.S. officials to ramp up America’s counter-narcotics role, with military officials in Afghanistan wary of such a move. “Central Command would prefer not to be in the eradication business,” said Lt. Gen. Lance Smith, Central Command’s deputy commander. “We have spent a lot of capital in trying to build relationships with the people in there and now this has the potential for us to do things that wouldn’t be popular for some of the areas we’re operating in.”

Lt. Gen. Smith’s concern would hold true even if eradication were done by U.S. contractors rather than U.S. troops, and such a distinction would probably be lost on the Afghan people. Aggressive, U.S.-backed efforts to eradicate peasants’ poppy crops could undermine U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and destabilize the vulnerable democratic process in the country. Many Afghans who have no other means of making a living would come to see coalition troops and the government in Kabul as enemies if their poppy plants are eradicated.

The Afghan trade in heroin does, of course, pose very serious problems. The heroin trade not only enriches factions allied with the Taliban, but it also makes some Tajik and other tribal chiefs, who are not hostile to either U.S. forces or Kabul, more resistant to centralized rule. For this reason, U.S. funding should back Afghan efforts to interdict heroin.

As Gen. James Jones, an American who is the supreme allied commander in Afghanistan, told the Financial Times: “If you pull at the thread of counter-narcotics the wrong way, because of the sheer proportion of the gross domestic product wrapped up in this business, you should be careful of unintended consequences.”

Washington’s eradication efforts include the $780 million Plan Afghanistan. Money should instead be limited to the plan’s more promising elements, such as the financing of alternative livelihoods and drug-interdiction initiatives. With Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections scheduled for April, the coming months will be critically important. A spring eradication offensive would overshadow those elections and especially hurt candidates aligned with Kabul and Washington.

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