- The Washington Times - Friday, May 19, 2006

Nearly five years after U.S. troops routed the Taliban, the Islamic fighters are again wreaking havoc in Afghanistan by aligning themselves with terrorists, poppy growers and heroin traffickers — a problem the nation’s top counternarcotics official says won’t go away without help from the United States and other foreign powers.

“The narcotics issue in Afghanistan is not a national issue, it is a global and international problem,” said Lt. Gen. Mohammad Daud Daud, deputy interior minister for counternarcotics. “We cannot by ourselves succeed in this war; we need international support to succeed.”

In an exclusive interview with The Washington Times, Gen. Daud said, “The new challenge we are facing is the … connection or link between al Qaeda, the Taliban, the terrorists, as well as the traffickers.”

But the situation is far from hopeless, said the general, a bearded and charismatic man on whose shoulders rests President Hamid Karzai’s hopes of ending the war-torn nation’s economic dependence on illegal narcotics.

Visiting Washington after attending the International Drug Enforcement Conference this year in Montreal, Gen. Daud said recent efforts to eradicate Afghanistan’s poppies, the plants used to make opium and heroin, have shown progress.

Poppy production was 4,630 tons in 2004, but Afghan government figures show that in the past five months, 44,656 acres of poppy plants were plowed under in a joint effort by Afghan, British, U.S. and coalition forces, and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

No. 1 poppy grower

However, according to Gen. Daud, complete eradication of poppy crops has been prevented by poor security in the country’s fertile southern provinces, lack of resources for training counternarcotics teams, and the international bureaucracy of nation building.

The result: Afghanistan remains the world’s largest producer of heroin’s raw ingredients, providing about 87 percent of the world total, with exports valued at an estimated $2.7 billion per year, according to government figures.

With the hope of crop substitution dimmed by waning international support and war-damaged agricultural infrastructure, Afghan farmers face a difficult choice: Continue growing poppies to make a living for their families, or embrace poverty and obey the laws of the new government in Kabul.

Speaking through government interpreters, Gen. Daud said Afghanistan’s “deep, abject poverty and insecurity,” reinforces the Taliban’s hold on the poppy trade.

“We promise alternative assistance,” he said. “But the international community has not delivered enough alternative assistance to farmers, which, as a result, causes them to continue cultivation just to survive.”

“About 10 percent of our population — about 3 million people — are involved in this cultivation merely to survive,” he said. “Given a legal choice, of course they would stop poppy cultivation.”

Legalization opposed

The general also said one international group is complicating efforts to persuade farmers to abandon poppies. Specifically, he criticized a European security and development group, the Senlis Council of France, for “advocating legalization of poppy cultivation” in Afghanistan.

Last September, the group issued a report at a symposium in Kabul on the feasibility of licensing Afghan opium for the legal production of opiates used in medicine, such as morphine.

Despite announcements from Muslim leaders that illicit drugs are against Islam, the Taliban profited from poppies before the U.S.-led attack of October 2001. During their final 18 months in power ending in December that year, Taliban leaders banned poppy cultivation.

The ban reduced heroin on the world market in 2001, and may have been driven by a desire to ease pressure from foreign governments, but some analysts contend their motive was to create a shortage that would send opium prices soaring when production resumed.

Gen. Daud maintains that a surge in opium output after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan was linked to continuing Taliban control of the trade.

“The Taliban is extracting a 10 percent tax on farmers cultivating poppies,” he said. “We have evidence of this. The Taliban levies a $50 tax on each kilogram of heroin.”

Profits aid terrorists

He said the profits directly aid terrorists working with the Taliban, citing an increase in suicide and other terrorist attacks on Afghan and coalition troops wherever there is poppy cultivation.

“Money from drug trafficking facilitates terrorist operations and helps them [take] root in society,” he said. “There is no doubt that the income that comes from drug trafficking fuels terrorism in Afghanistan.”

Gen. Daud added that “as eradication efforts go forward, the level of attacks against government forces is decreasing.”

The problem is worst in Helmand province, where security threats hinder the movement and effectiveness of government forces. British authorities responded to the crisis in Helmand, where about 70 percent of Afghanistan’s poppy crop is grown, by deploying 3,500 troops to the province this spring.

Gen. Daud voiced hope that the British forces will aid eradication. “The Taliban is not a big enough force that they can come face to face with these troops,” he said. “They conduct a suicide attack, or in some places an ambush on the forces, and then skip from the area.”

In addition to the British deployment, the general said, Afghan police need more training, equipment and higher salaries to provide security on their own.

Colombia’s experience

“That is our No. 1 priority and our No. 1 demand from the international community — to commit sustainable resources and immediate attention to building the capacity of our police,” he said.

A book of photographs sits on the coffee table in a meeting room at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, where Gen. Daud spoke with The Times.

The book, “Presidential Homes of Colombia,” invites the question of whether Afghanistan can learn from Colombia’s experience fighting a cocaine trade facilitated by the guerrilla Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

While the ideological parameters of the two countries differ, Gen. Daud agrees that destabilizing the government “is a common interest of traffickers and terrorists.”

“With the FARC it’s the same,” he said, adding that as in Colombia, Afghanistan’s “traffickers have joined the terrorists and the Taliban to traffic, to produce … while the Taliban need their assistance to do the same.”

Others have looked for similarities between the two conflicts. An effort last year led by Rep. Henry J. Hyde, Illinois Republican, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, sought to bring the expertise of Colombian counternarcotics authorities to Afghanistan.

Aerial spraying rejected

The Afghan ambassador to Washington visited Bogota to restore diplomatic relations last summer, although the interchange has apparently not yet gone beyond that.

One technique used in Colombia that is unlikely to be used in Afghanistan is to destroy drug crops by spraying chemicals from the air. U.S. officials initially pushed a plan for aerial eradication in Afghanistan, but Mr. Karzai put it on hold last year, saying it presented too great a health risk to children and adults in already impoverished villages.

Asked about this, Gen. Daud cited potential problems with aerial spraying. “Aircraft have to really fly low so they can spray poppies effectively,” he observed. “In southern Afghanistan, insecurity, the fact that the Taliban and the terrorists are able to shoot down planes successfully, is something that we need to think about.”

He conceded that the possibility of future aerial spraying remains under consideration, but supported Mr. Karzai’s concerns.

“We have to think about the consequences of air eradication in terms of its impact on the environment, on the people, and also given the experience of aerial eradication in other countries, especially in Latin America, the effectiveness of it,” the general said. “Has it been effective there?”

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