- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

LASHKARGAH, Afghanistan — Afghanistan will encourage its powerful drug lords to invest their illegally earned profits in the war-shattered country, according to the governor of the nation’s top opium-growing region.

The offer comes amid warnings of another bumper poppy crop to support a booming narcotics trade, which already accounts for 35 percent of the impoverished country’s income.

“We as a government will provide them the opportunity to use their money for the national benefit,” Helmand Gov. Muhammad Daud said during a trip to the region this week by U.S. Ambassador Ronald Neumann.

“They must invest in industries. They must invest in construction companies,” he said.

But he said that thus far the government has had no success in attracting the drug traffickers to open new businesses and that most of the money is being sent overseas.

The drug trade employs about one in 10 Afghans and brought in $2.8 billion last year, Afghan and U.S. officials said. The vast majority of that goes to traffickers and only a small fraction to farmers.

About 345,000 acres of poppies are believed to have been planted this year — an increase of up to 40 percent from 2005. The opium is refined into heroin before being smuggled out of the country to meet 90 percent of the world’s demand.

A U.S. diplomat, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the drug trade was so entrenched that it was difficult to confront the narcotics bosses.

He said the government could grant them an “informal amnesty” if they end their involvement in drugs, swear allegiance to President Hamid Karzai’s government, invest their money at home and pay taxes.

The diplomat said one or two major traffickers have approached the government for talks, but no deals have been reached.

Most of their money is stashed in banks in the United Arab Emirates, he said.

Asked about the offer in an interview at the main U.S.-led coalition base in Helmand, Mr. Neumann compared it to a broad national reconciliation program with Taliban militants and others that aims to bring peace after a quarter-century of war.

“It’s part of a larger problem. You have militia commanders, you have drug lords, you have all kinds of people that at the end of the day, some of them need to be arrested and put in prison, but basically Afghanistan has to come back together,” he said.

But Mr. Neumann said he was not aware of a formal program attempting to get drug traffickers to invest in Afghanistan.

“There is a lot of effort to get Afghans as a whole to invest … [but] I don’t know of any easy way that we are going to distinguish where the money comes from,” he said.

Afghanistan would not be the first nation with a vast drug industry to let barons launder their ill-gotten money.

The U.S. government has accused military-run Burma — once the world’s top producer of opium and still treated as a pariah for its poor human rights record — of allowing drug kingpins and ethnic armies that reached cease-fires with the government to invest in commercial banks and other businesses.

Afghanistan’s drug traffickers have acted with virtual impunity since U.S.-led forces in 2001 ousted the Taliban, which in its final two years in power enforced a virtual ban on opium cultivation.

The new judiciary system is weak and has never prosecuted senior traffickers. Afghan and Western officials say the police force is corrupt, with officers suspected of involvement in the narcotics trade.

The government’s approach until now in dealing with drugs has been to eradicate poppy fields forcibly as part of a U.S. and British-backed program, while also providing farmers with the means to grow legal crops.

Although last year saw a notable decline in opium cultivation, only a tiny percentage of the opium fields that were planted were destroyed. That prompted farmers to plant more this year because of the apparent likelihood that they will be able to get away with it, the U.S. diplomat said.

The government has vowed to eradicate more this year, and lines of tractors have already ground up about 12,000 acres of the plants before the milky white, oozing opium gum could be harvested, according to U.S. officials.

Drug agents in recent years have considered using airplanes to spray herbicides on the poppies, but strong opposition from Mr. Karzai halted the idea, the diplomat said.

The ground eradication campaign has also met with resistance.

Taliban rebels have vowed to defend the opium farmers. In some small towns in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, posters purportedly by the insurgents have been pasted on walls, promising to prevent widespread destruction of the poppies.

Eradication started last month in Kandahar and last week in Helmand, but there have been only small skirmishes in both provinces so far.

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