As opium poppies flourish, Karzai's resolve seems to wilt

November 21, 2006|By John Boit

Five years ago this month, Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, was liberated from the tyranny of the Taliban regime and its "guests," al-Qaida. Five years later, Afghanistan, and indeed the world, lives under the threat of another brutal tyrant: the narcotics trade and the terrorism it funds.

Despite this threat, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who once so passionately announced that counter-narcotics was a top concern, appears to have wilted on the anti-drug message while the opium poppy, from which heroin is derived, flourishes to record levels - the area cultivated increased an astonishing 60 percent over last year, according to the United Nations.

It makes little difference to most Americans whether a junkie in Hamburg, London or Moscow dies in an alley with a needle in his arm. Europe, after all, is where the vast majority of Afghan heroin winds up.

But we should care when the proceeds from that junkie's drug deal are used to finance terrorism that is killing our troops overseas and that could ultimately be used to fund acts of violence in the United States.

It can no longer be denied that opium, of which Afghanistan supplies 92 percent of world supply, helps to fuel terrorism and insurgency. Our elected officials have said it. The United Nations has called opium the "cash cow" of terrorism. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has stated that almost half of those on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations have possible ties to the drug trade.

Former U.S. drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey said it best after returning from a trip to Afghanistan last year: "Is there a relationship between $2 billion in this impoverished, 14th-century, desperate land, and the appearance of brand-new guns and shiny camping gear? Of course there is."

Indeed, only the Afghan government appears to be unwilling to admit the link between drugs and insurgency and terrorism. In continuing to do so, Afghanistan will lose the attention of its allies and their much-needed cash.

Having had the privilege to work in Afghanistan last year on a counter-narcotics communications team, I know full well the challenges in encouraging the world to show more support in the fight against opium. Yet I remain firmly convinced that Afghanistan can and must crush its drug trade. Some of its provinces already have, but others have drastically increased production.

President Karzai needs to understand that the world must hear a good reason why we should help him wean his country of drugs. The threat of terrorists getting their hands on almost unlimited funding from the drug trade is a good place to start.

And yet, Mr. Karzai appears to fail to grasp the immediacy of the problem. All we heard during his trip to the United States in September was that he felt "ashamed" by the narcotics trade. He revised expectations of winning the drug fight to 10 to 15 years, claiming that "anything in a hurry, anything with emotions will get us into trouble."

It is unlikely that foreign nations will support Afghanistan for that long. But it is beyond a doubt that those drug dollars will be used to finance insurgency and terrorism in his country. The question is: How long will it take for that money to finance an act of terrorism on U.S. soil?

Mr. Karzai needs to make the now-irrefutable point - publicly, loudly and often - that drugs finance terrorism. Considering that it only took $400,000 to fund the 9/11 attacks, no one should feel safe as long as billions of dollars from Afghanistan's drug trade are sloshing around out there. Five years ago, we didn't stand for Afghanistan's harboring of al-Qaida. Today, with every poppy that blooms, Afghanistan risks harboring an international bank of terrorism.

John Boit is the CEO of an international strategic communications firm. He spent six months in Afghanistan last year working on a Defense Department counter-narcotics training project for Afghan media officers. His e-mail is jboit@melwoodglobal.com.

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