Troops to join opium battle

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- American combat troops will be thrown into the fight against narcotics traffickers in Afghanistan, where despite a $1 billion U.S. effort, another record opium crop is expected this fall, U.S. anti-drug officials said yesterday.

In a briefing for reporters, the officials outlined the new approach as part of a "basic strategy shift" in the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan.

Production of Afghan opium in the coming year will provide the entire world's supply of heroin, U.S. officials reported, surpassing last year's record-high production that has defied a concerted international effort at controlling narcotics.

The illicit opium production and heroin trade accounts for at least one-third of Afghanistan's total economy, is directly linked to funding the Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents, and fosters corruption that reaches into "high levels of the national government" of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, according to a report by the World Bank and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

U.S. officials, acting on what they described as "more and more alarming" reports linking huge drug profits with the Taliban and other insurgents and terrorist groups, issued a new plan for the counter-narcotics fight in Afghanistan. The plan includes directing $30 million in new aid for farming communities that agree to give up production of poppies, the source of raw opium.

"We know that opium, maybe second only to terror, is a huge threat to the future of Afghanistan," John P. Walters, director of national drug control policy, told reporters.

"The efforts by the Afghan people to build institutions of justice and rule of law are threatened not only by the terror, but the drug forces that are both economic, addictive and, of course, support in some cases terror, not only through money, but through influence and moving people away from the structures of government toward the structures of drug mafias and violence," he said.

The plan also directs forced eradication of poppy crops and the "take-down" of high-value drug kingpins with the help of the 26,000 U.S. troops currently based in Afghanistan.

Until now, there has been a strict firewall between the military's operations against the Taliban and other insurgents, and the drug war, which heavily involves U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents. The international effort against drugs has been led by the British.

But the new plan says, in effect, that the counter-insurgency fight and the counter-narcotics fight must be merged.

"There is a clear and direct link between the illicit opium trade and insurgent groups in Afghanistan," the report said. The Pentagon "will work with DEA" and other agencies "to develop options for a coordinated strategy that integrates and synchronizes counternarcotics operations, particularly interdiction, into the comprehensive security strategy."

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who replaced Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon last December, has made it a top priority to foster increased coordination with the State Department and other agencies, especially in the counter-insurgency battles in Iraq and Afghanistan, where a combination of increased security and local economic development is considered critical.

"This is a welcome sign of better cooperation on the ground between military forces and the State Department," said Robert Killebrew, a retired senior Army strategic planner.

The new drug strategy grew out of a series of meetings in Washington earlier this year that officials described as the first time that different federal agencies involved in Afghanistan -- including State and Defense, Justice, Agriculture and the Drug Enforcement Administration -- had met to coordinate their activities.

Under the new approach, development funds will be targeted on those communities, largely in northern Afghanistan, that have eliminated or are working to eliminate poppy cultivation. The emphasis will be on immediate aid projects such as roads and schools, said Walters. He added that the aid could be as much as $60 million in the next several years.

In southern Afghanistan where poppy cultivation has increased the fastest, the emphasis will be on crop eradication and on "taking down" drug kingpins and narco-traffickers, said Thomas Schweich, the State Department's top counter-narcotics official.

That region, particularly Helmand and Kandahar provinces, has seen major battles between Taliban and U.S., NATO and Afghan security forces in recent months. On Wednesday, for example, American, French and British warplanes flew 40 close air support missions, dropping bombs and firing rockets from F-15, A-10, Harrier and Mirage fighters and from a B-1 bomber, in support of U.S. and NATO combat units battling insurgents.

At present, DEA agents have the lead in tracking down what Schweich described as "wealthy landowners, corrupt officials, opportunists, people who see a security vacuum" who are involved in the narcotics trade. But he insisted that effort will be expanded.

"Everyone in the whole chain of supply and demand has to know that they are vulnerable under this plan," he said. "This will require cooperation from military authorities, which they have offered, and it will require an intensive, increased training effort of Afghan police."

Walters said he has worked closely on the plan with U.S. and international commanders in Iraq and with Gates and others at the Pentagon. Currently, the U.S. military command in Afghanistan, Joint Task Force 82, provides some limited intelligence to Afghan forces on missions to interdict drug shipments, according to a Congressional Research Service report published in June.

But precisely how U.S. troops will be used in the new effort remained unclear.

A report on the new strategy issued yesterday by the State Department said the Pentagon "intends to work on" the specifics of the plan. Asked about the new U.S. military role, Army Capt. Vanessa R. Bowman, a spokeswoman in Afghanistan for Joint Task Force 82, said she was unaware of any new strategy.

Bryan Whitman, a senior Pentagon spokesman, said the Pentagon "plays a supporting role to counter-narcotics law enforcement" in Afghanistan. In an e-mailed statement, Whitman said the military will "continue to provide logistical and 'in extremis' support" to counter-narcotics operations in Afghanistan, as well as to continue training Afghan security forces.

Other Defense Department officials, asked to explain the new strategy, were not available.

Outside analysts were critical of the new U.S. strategy for putting eradication of poppy crops ahead of what they considered more important: dealing with government corruption.

"In our view, you have to begin with changing the political will in Afghanistan," said Mark L. Schneider, a former UN and State Department official who is a senior official of the International Crisis Group, a nonpartisan analysis group. "Nothing will happen there unless people see that those who engage in narcotics trafficking are unacceptable. No. 1 job is getting the government to get rid of the thugs," he said.

The World Bank-UN report issued last winter found "worrying signs of infiltration by the drug industry into higher levels of government and into the emergent politics of the country.

"Through protection payments and connections the drug industry has major linkages with local administration as well as high levels of the national government," the report said.

Those concerns were underscored by a finding issued July 31 by the State Department inspector general, Howard J. Krongard, on the corrosive effects on Afghanistan's fledgling government from the huge amounts of cash generated by the drug trade.

After a study of Afghanistan in conjunction with the Defense Department's inspector general's office, Krongard reported that U.S. spending on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan is "dwarfed" by the roughly $38 billion street value of the Afghan poppy crop if it were all converted to heroin.

He said the analysis found "no realistic possibility of outspending economic incentives in the narcotics industry."

According to the Congressional Research Service, the Pentagon and the State Department this year are spending $991.5 million on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan and surrounding countries. According to the CRS analysis, the Bush administration has asked for only $628.2 million for the coming year.

Officials could not immediately explain the drop in funding or what the new strategy would cost.

Asked about the effectiveness of using combat troops in the counter-narcotics campaign, Walters said that "obviously, if you go into areas in clumsy ways that are self-defeating, then you are going to have negative consequences."

But he suggested the benefits are worth that risk.

"The other issue here," he said, "is that the opium trade is both funding terror and, of course, destroying the institutions through corruption and economic distortion."

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