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Sunday, June 20, 2004

HoustonChronicle.com - Drug trade may axe plan to rebuild Afghanistan

HoustonChronicle.com - Drug trade may axe plan to rebuild Afghanistan

June 19, 2004, 8:33PM

Afghan drug trade may derail American efforts to rebuild nation
By JOHN OTIS
Copyright 2004 Houston Chronicle
SHABASKHEIL, Afghanistan -- Slicing down rows of red and white flowers with sickles, an army of Afghan laborers laid waste to 25 acres of opium poppies in 90 minutes.

That was the easy part. Deploying the low-tech drug warriors to poppy fields safe enough to destroy took three days.

When the eight-bus convoy of eradicators first hit the road, a homemade bomb exploded along the route. No one was hurt, but as the workers regrouped the next day, a rocket landed 100 yards short of their rural bivouac. Rattled by the attacks, the men turned their attention to a smaller poppy crop closer to their base camp.

As Najibullah Khesraw began another day of poppy-cutting as part of the U.S.-funded eradication campaign that began last month, he fretted that farmers sometimes bury land mines among the drug crops.

"There is no way to avoid the risk," he said.

Two-and-a-half years after a U.S.-led war ousted the Taliban regime, poppies -- the raw material for heroin -- are appearing all over Afghanistan. Many experts warn that the booming drug trade could derail American efforts to rebuild the nation and roll back terrorism.

"Drugs could destroy the stability of the country and the legitimacy of the Afghan government," said Antonio Maria Costa, who heads the Vienna-based United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "It is a national security threat."

After the Taliban banned the cultivation of opium poppies four years ago, the size of the crop shrank dramatically.

Now, Afghan opium is once again the source of 70 percent of the world's heroin. Last year, Afghan drug farmers and traffickers earned $2.3 billion, an amount equal to half the nation's gross domestic product and five times the annual budget of the central government, according to U.N. estimates.

The drug trade also provides cash for Taliban and al-Qaida fighters as well as for regional warlords, said Mirwais Yasini, director of the Afghan government's Counternarcotics Department. Experts say sophisticated cartels appear to be taking root.

"Growers, brokers and traffickers enjoy the protection of police chiefs, militia commanders, provincial governors and even Cabinet ministers," Robert Perito of the United States Institute of Peace -- a nonpartisan institution created by Congress -- told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month.

"These officials use the proceeds from drugs to fund personal armies and to maintain their independence from the central government," he said.

Some foreign policy analysts place part of the blame for the drug bonanza on a decision by the Bush administration to station a relatively small number of troops in Afghanistan after the war that removed the Taliban regime in November 2001.

U.S. troop levels now stand at about 20,000. But for most of the past 30 months, just 11,000 U.S. troops were based in the country, with the bulk tied down in the hunt for Osama bin Laden, his al-Qaida fighters and remnants of the Taliban. By contrast, about 135,000 American soldiers patrol Iraq, which is smaller than Afghanistan.

Members of the fledgling Afghan police and army forces are still being recruited and trained. With little official vigilance in the countryside, poppy production has spread from a few areas in 2001 to 28 of the nation's 32 provinces today, according to the United Nations.

"This is a direct byproduct of U.S. choices," said Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College. "We opted for a light military footprint."

Lt. Gen. David Barno, the top American commander in Afghanistan, insists, however, that a no-holds-barred drug war led by the U.S. military would distract his troops from their primary mission -- the war on terror.

"We share intelligence with the Afghans, and we destroy drugs and laboratories if we encounter them," Barno said in a May speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But I don't see coalition military forces as being the solution. Our primary focus is terrorism."

One U.S. official who requested anonymity pointed out that a narcotics crackdown by U.S. troops could stir resistance among farmers and local officials and hamstring efforts of American patrols to capture or kill terrorists.

What's more, some analysts say, a military role in an anti-drug campaign would mean taking steps against several regional warlords who have helped U.S. troops track terrorists but who are also involved in the narcotics trade.

Yasini, of Afghanistan's Counternarcotics Department, warned that terrorists and narcotics traffickers feed off one another. Many Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents, he said, are either directly involved in the drug trade or demand payoffs for protecting smugglers.

"One truckload of heroin going east is enough to buy one truckload of arms coming west," added Costa, of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Experts note that most of the heroin sold on U.S. streets arrives from Mexico or Colombia, a fact that may help explain why Afghanistan's drug trade has long ranked as a secondary issue in Washington. Most heroin from Afghanistan goes to Central Asia, China and Europe.

In his book Taliban, Ahmed Rashid said CIA officials often looked the other way in the 1980s, when American-backed Islamic rebels known as the mujahedeen dealt in heroin to help underwrite their holy war against the Soviet army, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979. Some U.S. cold warriors came to view cheap Afghan heroin as a plus, because thousands of occupying Soviet troops became addicted.

"Drug control was on nobody's agenda," Rashid wrote. "Everyone chose to ignore it, for the larger task was to defeat the Soviet Union."

After the Soviet pullout in 1989, the U.S. Congress cut funds to the Afghan rebels, forcing various mujahedeen factions to rely more than ever on drug money as they fought a civil war among themselves. By 1999, Afghanistan produced a record 4,581 metric tons of opium, according to U.N. estimates. In 1979, by contrast, the harvest was just 200 tons.

Citing Islamic law, the country's Taliban rulers banned poppy cultivation in July 2000 and warned that violators would be put to death, but they closed their eyes to drug trafficking. Many experts called the edict a move to drive up the price of Afghan heroin.

In 2001, the country's opium production plummeted to 185 metric tons. With the countryside in chaos following the Taliban's ouster and the legal economy in crisis, opium production shot back to 3,600 tons last year.

Standing over an irrigation ditch in Shabaskheil, 30 miles southwest of Kabul, Fazel Rahman, a high school physics teacher and part-time poppy grower, explained how drug crops came to his community several years ago.

Traffickers from southern Kandahar province, he said, offered seeds, fertilizer and credit to local farmers who switched from corn and wheat to poppies. Amid a drought, the growers discovered that poppies required less water than traditional crops and brought more cash. Rahman, 24, said he pocketed $5,000 from opium sales last year, his largest-ever annual income.

"We were impressed by the profits," Rahman said, as several neighbors nodded. "God willing, we will plant more next year."

More troubling than the mushrooming poppy crop, said the United Nations' Costa, is the growing sophistication of Afghan smugglers.

Most Afghan opium used to be converted to heroin in laboratories in Pakistan, Turkey and elsewhere. Now, most Afghan traffickers import precursor chemicals and run their own labs.

These days, up to 90 percent of the illegal drug exports from Afghanistan is heroin, Costa said. With little to buy in war-ravaged Afghanistan, nouveau-riche traffickers are snapping up properties abroad.

"Now, we are talking about drug syndicates," Costa said. "Once they become established, like in Colombia, they become extremely difficult to eliminate."

With critics warning that Afghanistan could become a full-blown narco-state, the U.S. government is turning more attention to the drug crisis.

Washington will spend about $100 million over the next year on a special anti-drug Afghan police unit; mobile eradication teams of poppy cutters who earn $10 a day; and programs to help drug farmers switch to legal crops.

After numerous delays, the first eradication team set up camp near Shabaskheil in central Wardak province last month. But opium growers and traffickers have given no ground.

Two weeks ago, a poppy cutter was blinded when he stepped on a land mine buried in a field.

The explosive device that recently rocked the eight-bus convoy near Shabaskheil had been rigged to detonate two 120-mm mortar shells, but they failed to go off.

As bomb-disposal experts removed the green, 2-foot-long shells from the gravel road, police stood guard over five Afghan peasants detained after the ambush.

One of the detainees, Allah Mohammad, said he had nothing to do with the bombing. But he admitted that his family grows opium poppies.

"We don't like the drug business. It only brings problems," Mohammad said, as he sat on a hill overlooking the blast site. "But there's a drought, and no one has enough money. This is the only way to make a living."

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