- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Afghan efforts to eradicate opium-yielding poppy crops that fuel the Taliban-led insurgency have stalled as a result of a lack of incentives and adequate security for farmers who may be inclined to cut ties with the Taliban, according to Afghan and Western officials.

Money from the illicit drug trade is used to finance insurgencies within and outside Afghanistan.

“Eradication has been stalled because of insecurity, a lack of alternative assistance and the fact that it is counterproductive,” a senior Afghan official told The Washington Times.

“If you have not delivered alternative assistance … you are creating a situation which can be exploited by the Taliban,” the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We should be careful not to eradicate in such a way that would create opportunities for the enemy.”

U.N. drug czar Antonio Maria Costa told NATO that militants in Afghanistan were storing thousands of tons of heroin and using the caches as “savings accounts” to finance the insurgency, according to a confidential 2009 U.S. cable leaked by the WikiLeaks website.

The cable said Mr. Costa thought the “most powerful motivating factors driving farmers away from opium cultivation were effective law enforcement, NATO strikes, and measures by the Afghan government to destroy crops.”

Afghan and Western officials say the cultivation of opium across Afghanistan is linked to the presence of the insurgency.

“In Costa’s view, counternarcotics operations by NATO and Afghan forces alone or jointly [were] making an impact and causing farmers to think twice,” the U.S. cable said.

Mr. Costa is no longer serving as drug czar at the United Nations.

A report by the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control found that the Taliban is linked to the drug trade at every level: from the poppy fields to the heroin-processing laboratories to the transportation and distribution of the narcotic.

“The Taliban has become both a terrorist organization and a drug cartel, ideology and greed being their [principal] motivators,” the report said, adding, “United States policymakers need to recognize that the Taliban operates as a drug cartel. … If the U.S. ignores the drug problem, we will fail in Afghanistan.”

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) concluded in its report that the lack of security in the southern and western parts of Afghanistan had compromised the rule of law and limited counternarcotics interventions, resulting in high opium-cultivation levels.

According to the report, 82 percent of the opium cultivated in 2010 was concentrated in Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Day Kundi and Zabul provinces of the southern region and 16 percent was concentrated in Farah, Badghis and Nimroz provinces in the western region.

Opium prices have risen sharply as production has declined because of a virulent plant disease that has stricken poppy plants.

An average farm-gate price of dry opium at harvest time was $169 a kilogram (2.2. pounds), a 164 percent increase from 2009, according to the UNODC report.

Officials are worried that the increased value of opium, combined with lower wheat prices, may prove to be a tempting incentive for farmers to cultivate poppies.

A majority of the heroin produced in Afghanistan ends up in Russia.

The steady flow of narcotics has fueled frustration in Moscow with what it perceives to be a reluctance on the part of NATO and the U.S.-led coalition to eradicate the drug menace.

“The Russians are highly frustrated with NATO and U.S. counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan or the lack thereof,” said a Russian veteran of the Soviet war in Afghanistan who is familiar with official Russian thinking on this matter.

Like many other officials interviewed, he spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Earlier this year, Dmitry Rogozin, Russia’s ambassador to NATO, said his country “is losing 30,000 lives a year to the Afghan drug trade, and 1 million people are addicts.”

“This is an undeclared war against our country,” Mr. Rogozin said.

The Afghan Constitution prohibits the growing of narcotics, and most Afghans do not grow poppies because it is considered haraam — forbidden — in Islam.

“The issue here is that [Afghan President Hamid] Karzai and his family presumably benefit from the drug trade, and only 7 [percent] to 10 percent of the heroin goes from Afghanistan to the U.S., so for the U.S. this is not a priority,” the Russian veteran said.

Some Western officials claim that Mr. Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the top civilian official in Kandahar, benefits from his ties to the drug trade.

Russian officials have been urging the U.S. and NATO to ramp up efforts to eradicate poppy fields in Afghanistan.

This summer they provided their U.S. counterparts with coordinates pinpointing the locations of drug lords and 175 heroin labs in Afghanistan.

The Russians also played what one State Department official later described as a “supporting role,” along with the Drug Enforcement Administration and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), in an October raid on heroin labs in Nangarhar province near the border with Pakistan.

The operation was led by the Afghan Ministry of Interior Counter-Narcotics Police (CNP-A) Sensitive Investigative Unit and National Interdiction Unit.

Russia’s public declaration of its role in the operation prompted President Karzai to angrily accuse the Russians of violating Afghan sovereignty. Afghan officials later attributed the president’s outburst to a “miscommunication.”

“Karzai was really upset about the Russians in large part because he feels it makes him look weak in talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. I think he’s right,” said a Western official based in Afghanistan.

“It was the Russians themselves who made a lot of it publicly, while we and the Afghans wanted their advisory role in counternarcotics stuff kept quiet,” this official said.

“We’ve been pushing the Russians to get more involved regionally, and all they seem to care about are the narcotics coming up from Afghanistan into Russia,” he added.

The senior Afghan official said the Afghan government is not opposed to joint counternarcotics operations with the Russians “as long as we are made aware in advance and these are planned together and we operate together.”

Russia has been pushing for ISAF’s mandate to be expanded to include the destruction of poppy fields.

The Russians also have been critical of a U.S. and NATO decision not to spray herbicide over poppy fields because of concerns that such action would alienate the local population. The U.S. focus in Afghanistan has shifted from eradication of poppy crops under the George W. Bush administration to interdiction under the Obama administration.

“The fact that the Americans are ignoring this problem is sending a bad signal to Afghan farmers who are growing fruits and vegetables,” the Russian veteran said.

U.S. officials refute accusations that they are not serious about dealing with the problem.

“The U.S. remains committed to counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan,” said a State Department official.

“We continue to work closely with the government of Afghanistan, our coalition partners, and other countries, like Russia, that share our commitment to addressing this transnational problem,” he added.

U.S. drug czar R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, said renewed efforts to support Afghan counternarcotics operations have enabled Afghan law enforcement and military forces, along with their allied partners, to make significant drug seizures.

“The U.S.-Russian Bilateral Presidential Commission’s working group on drug trafficking established last year by Presidents Obama and [Dmitry] Medvedev supports this effort in part by increasing cooperation between DEA and [Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service] FSKN. Our partnership can help defeat transnational criminal networks and choke off the drug trade, which harms citizens of all countries,” Mr. Kerlikowske said in an e-mail.

In the past 11 months, more than 9,000 metric tons of heroin have been seized, a 600 percent increase over the previous year.

• Ashish Kumar Sen can be reached at asen@washingtontimes.com.

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