Opium trade threatens Afghan stability again

Bush administration vows stronger anti-drug effort

August 12, 2004|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Two and a half years after the Bush administration made the eradication of Afghanistan's drug trade a high priority, poppy growing and heroin production have exploded, providing money and logistical aid to al-Qaida and other militants, bolstering Afghan warlords and threatening that nation's stability, officials and experts say.

After being suppressed during the final year of Taliban rule, the drug industry has grown to the point where Afghanistan is again the world's largest source of opium, according to United Nations estimates. The drug accounted for $2.3 billion last year - half the nation's economy. This year's opium production is expected to be even higher, U.N. and World Bank officials say.

Opium profits supply a chain running from farmers in Afghanistan's impoverished provinces to warlords who exact a cut of the money to traffickers, some linked to al-Qaida. Bush administration officials say that although they can't put a figure on al-Qaida's take, there's no doubt about a link between trafficking and terrorism.

Robert Charles, the State Department's top counter-narcotics official, suggested that militants' reliance on drug profits is likely to grow as law enforcement officials choke off al-Qaida bank accounts and the flow of donations from wealthy sympathizers. Worldwide, Charles said, there's a "convergence" between terrorists and traffickers "as other income sources dry up."

A greater U.S. effort

With the narcotics trade threatening to corrupt and undermine Afghanistan's fragile attempt to establish democratic rule, the Bush administration is promising more action - to destroy drug labs and warehouses, interdict traffickers, eradicate fields of opium poppies and encourage alternative crops.

"There are plans being finished now," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Tuesday in Oman before a visit to the Afghan capital of Kabul.

But one U.S. drug official said a project on the scale of the effort in Colombia might be required. Washington has poured $700 million a year into training and equipping Colombia's military and police to fight drug lords. Only now, five years after the launch of Plan Colombia, is that effort seeing real results.

Rensselaer Lee, a government consultant who has studied global drug trafficking for years, warned that the narcotics trade in Afghanistan might already be developed "beyond the point where it is possible to control."

That opium could become Afghanistan's major industry reflects what critics see as a failure by the United States and its allies to follow up the 2001 U.S.-led war with a sustained nation-building effort that could give Afghanistan the institutions and infrastructure to foster a prosperous and legitimate economy.

The surge in the opium trade is also striking in light of a goal declared in December 2001 by the State Department's Afghanistan coordinator at the time, Richard Haass: "You all know our aims in Afghanistan - to rid the country of terrorism, to get rid of al-Qaida and the Taliban leadership. We also want to bring about an Afghanistan which does not produce or export poppy."

That goal seemed realistic, with U.S. forces on the ground, the Taliban overthrown and al-Qaida on the run. To curry favor with the West, the Taliban had banned cultivation of the opium poppy, the plant that's processed into highly addictive heroin and morphine. And many of Afghanistan's Muslim clerics oppose opium trafficking on moral grounds.

But the Taliban move caused the price of the drug to rise and masked the existence of opium stockpiles. That allowed trafficking networks to rebound after the war as a new government struggled to establish itself, and warlords, some linked to the drug trade, re-established control in the provinces.

Taking advantage of high prices, farmers resumed opium cultivation with surprising speed. While the opium crop is grown on only 8 percent of the farmland, it can yield up to three harvests a year. It also offers farmers many times the profits they could earn from legal crops. As opium production has risen, so has the establishment of small labs that turn the crop into vastly more profitable heroin.

"The power of the opium economy was greater than people anticipated," said John P. Walters, who directs the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

In a division of labor between the United States and key allies, U.S. forces pursued al-Qaida and the Taliban, while Britain took the lead in combating narcotics. U.S. officials said they had expected other European and Asian nations to supply money and manpower.

"The British stepped up; a lot of the rest didn't," Walters said.

Walters did not mention what some administration critics say is another explanation: that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq sapped the attention required of both the United States and Britain for rebuilding Afghanistan.

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