Pubdate: Wed, 13 Oct 2004
Source: Bangkok Post (Thailand)
Copyright: The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2004
Author: Doug Bandow


US military clampdown would run the risk of turning opium producers into
battlefield enemies

Afghanistan's presidential elections came off with little violence but some
damaging controversy. President Hamid Karzai's 15 opponents charged vote

But whether the election is perceived as legitimate is only the second most
important issue facing the war-torn nation. Most critical is whether the
Bush Administration risks undermining the fight against al-Qaeda and the
Taliban in an attempt to suppress drug production.

Unfortunately, Afghanistan has become a global Opiates-R-Us.

In a nation where the average wage is a couple bucks a day, heroin and opium
trafficking produced revenues last year estimated at $2.3 billion annually _
as much as 60% of Afghanistan's official annual GDP. Opium has become the
perfect export from a land enveloped by chaos and war.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has attempted to craft
a positive spin: ''The establishment of democracy in Afghanistan and the
government's measures against cultivation, trade and abuse of opium have
been crucial steps toward solving the drug problem.'' This is but PR spin.

The mujahadeen relied on the drug trade for revenue when fighting the
Soviets. After the USSR withdrew from Afghanistan, civil war raged for
another decade.

The fundamentalist Taliban took power in 1996 and banned use of all
intoxicants, including opiates. However, Kabul had no objection to people
selling drugs to infidels.

Following the Taliban's ouster, the new government of Hamid Karzai outlawed
opium production. But chaos meant that the poppy fields were replanted and
smuggling was revived.

Regime change, though necessary for security purposes, did not provide
Afghan households with a new income. Moreover, Mr Karzai rules little more
than Kabul.

Even a successful election won't help much. Poppy production has spread to
28 of 32 provinces and the Afghan government figures that about 30% of
families are involved in the trade.

Until now, controlling opium trafficking has not been the West's top
priority in Afghanistan. Although the US Defence Department is careful to
appear cooperative, allied forces have largely ignored drug trafficking
unrelated to enemy action.

The Taliban is involved in drug trafficking, but so are many of Mr Karzai's
(and America's) local warlord allies. The poppy traders ''are the guys who
helped us liberate this place in 2001,''

one US official told the New York Times.

Unfortunately, even the return of stability and prosperity won't eliminate
the drug trade. Observed the UNODC, ''given the current opium prices within
Afghanistan, it is also clear that no other crop can compete with the opium
poppy as a source of income.''

Which leaves interdiction. Interdiction in regions run by warlords and where
the Taliban and al-Qaeda are active.

To his credit, House International Relations Committee chairman Rep Henry
Hyde says ''I do not want our military forces, already tasked with vital
counterterrorism and stability operations, to become Afghanistan's
anti-narcotics police.''

That, he says, should be the job of Afghan police, army, and judicial
authorities we are helping to build.

Yet there is no functioning Afghan state. How is a government which is
unable to secure its capital city going to squelch poppy production in
distant provinces?

Few additional allied troops can be expected. American forces, just 18,000
in the entire country, already are badly

stretched. But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says Washington is
developing a ''master plan'' to combat opium production.

Robert B. Charles, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics
and Law Enforcement Affairs, promises: ''We intend to be very aggressive,
very proactive.'' He adds, ''If the penalties are high enough, they will not
grow heroin poppies. We need to show the people that we are serious.''

But if the coalition penalises its erstwhile allies, it risks driving them
back to the Taliban. One US soldier in Kandahar worried: ''We start taking
out drug guys, and they will start taking out our guys.''

Indeed, drug producers are thought to have staged the bomb attack on the
private security firm, DynCorp, which has been training anti-narcotics
police. The Karzai government claimed that the same forces attempted to
assassinate vice-presidential candidate Ahmed Zia Masood.

''There is no quick fix,'' says Rosalind Marsden, Britain's ambassador to
Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it's not clear that there is a slow fix either.

Attempting to suppress the drug trade with more than rhetoric will make it
even harder to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Yet the West's most
important goal today remains destroying transnational terrorist networks,
led by al-Qaeda.

A British parliamentary committee recently warned that without additional
resources: ''Afghanistan _ a fragile state in one of the most sensitive and
volatile regions in the world _ could implode.'' Expanding the drug war will
make that more likely to happen.

Unfortunately, the allies have little choice but to leave Afghanistan's
opium market open to the world.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. He
is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and is the author
and editor of several books. 
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