WASHINGTON - Afghanistan's opium poppy cultivation has soared, and this year's harvest could be twice as large as last year's near-record crop unless eradication efforts are stepped-up immediately, a State Department official said yesterday.
The heroin business is "almost definitely" filling the coffers of the Taliban and Hizb-I Islami Gulbuddin, another Afghan extremist group linked to Osama bin Laden, and "possibly" enriching al-Qaida fighters as well, said Robert L. Charles, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs.
In rare but carefully muted criticism of America's top ally, Charles said British authorities had not done enough to eradicate poppies in their sector in southern Afghanistan. He warned that failure to stop the bumper harvest, which has already begun in some areas because of unusually warm weather, would have devastating consequences not only for the global drug trade but also for Afghan democracy.
"This is crunch time in Afghanistan," Charles told a congressional panel. "The first crop is coming very rapidly. ... We will pay a price later if we don't act right now."
The Defense Department must also do more to crack down on drug production in Afghanistan, said Rep. Mark E. Souder, an Indiana Republican and chairman of the Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources Subcommittee. .
"The American people aren't pouring billions of dollars into Afghanistan to watch it turn into a heroin poppy nation ... and an undemocratic narco terrorist-controlled state," Souder said.
Ninety percent of the heroin on European streets comes from Afghan poppies, while only 7 percent to 10 percent of the heroin in the United States is believed to originate there.
Charles said cutting the opium flow is central to fighting terrorism and preventing drug traffickers from undermining the fledgling Afghan democracy.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.