Policing the poppy

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - U.S. and allied combat troops will withhold efforts to destroy Afghanistan's narcotics industry, which finances the Taliban insurgency, unless Afghan government forces take the lead, a senior military officer said yesterday.

But with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai widely believed to be riven with corruption and its army and police units unable to conduct complex operations, the drug industry has flourished virtually untouched, military officers said.

Senior civilian and military officials have acknowledged that the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, launched by President George W. Bush weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001, cannot be won unless the narcotics trade's stranglehold on Afghanistan is broken and insurgent sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan are eliminated.

"These things simply have not happened," Gen. James T. Conway, commandant of the Marine Corps, told reporters yesterday. "I'd like to see, if and when we do contribute additional troops, that there is a direct means to get after these things."

Until then, he said, "we have all the elements of a long-term insurgency."

For months, senior officials, including Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have worked with Pakistan to find ways to reduce the radical Islamist militias' sanctuaries in that country's northwest region.

Yesterday, as part of that effort, several missiles apparently fired from U.S. drone aircraft struck two targets in North and South Waziristan. The Associated Press, quoting unidentified Pakistani intelligence officials, said five militants were among the 18 people killed.

The two strikes were the first taken under the Obama administration and seemed to signal that the practice of occasional attacks on militants in Pakistan, begun last August, will continue.

The Obama White House, in concert with the State Department and the Pentagon, is crafting a new strategy for dealing with Afghanistan and Pakistan, a process that is not complete, officials said.

Key parts of the new strategy will deal with narcotics and the sanctuaries problem.

President Barack Obama is tentatively scheduled to meet next week with the Joint Chiefs of Staff to review strategy options, including schedules to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq over the next 16 to 18 months and plans to add troops in Afghanistan.

Senior officials at the Pentagon and the White House have long been concerned about Afghanistan's drug industry, which provides about 92 percent of the world's heroin supply. The cultivation of poppies and the processing and sale of heroin provide about $400 million a year to the Taliban and al-Qaida insurgents, according to United Nations and U.S. intelligence officials.

The huge amounts of cash generated by the drug trade inevitably seep into the local and national police and government. U.S. officials have said corruption is "rampant" in Afghanistan and is a major reason many ordinary Afghans prefer the strict, if sometimes brutal, rule of the Taliban.

"Clearly, we have to go after the drug labs and the drug lords that provide support to the Taliban and other insurgents," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said this week.

In a news briefing Thursday at the Pentagon, Gates said he has authorized combat commanders in Afghanistan to attack narcotics facilities "if we have evidence that the drug labs and drug lords are supporting the Taliban." If there is such evidence, Gates said, "then they are fair game."

But it was unclear whether battalion commanders have the time and resources to assemble such evidence before launching counter-drug operations.

Asked whether he thought the current strategy is sufficient to deal with the drug problem, Gates replied: "We'll see."

Conway, who serves on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he is prepared to provide up to 20,000 Marines for Afghanistan, a tenfold increase over the number deployed there now.

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, has asked Washington to provide three more combat brigades, an aviation brigade and thousands of additional combat engineers, military police, and specialists in civil affairs, information operations and logistics - about 30,000 troops in all.

Currently there are 32,000 American troops in Afghanistan and an additional 30,000 NATO forces under McKiernan's command.

Conway said no decisions have been made about withdrawing troops from Iraq or deploying more troops to Afghanistan.

During the presidential campaign, Obama said repeatedly that he would ask the Pentagon to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq within 16 months.

Gates said this week that the Pentagon could meet that schedule but was also looking at other options to discuss with the president.

U.S. officials have been hesitant to commit the military to significant counter-drug operations in Afghanistan out of concern that it would provoke an anti-American reaction among the many poor farmers who choose or are forced to grow poppies.

Conway, asked directly whether Afghan troops should be in the lead of counter-drug operations, replied: "They have to be. Otherwise, you are creating little insurgents who will remember [that] 'You took bread out of my mouth by making my daddy stop planting poppies.'

"Whatever U.S. forces do, with regard to the drugs, it needs to be general support reinforcing what the Afghan government is addressing," he said.

Given such concerns, the counter-drug mission in Afghanistan was initially given to NATO forces. While some crop substitution programs have worked in large parts of the country, poppy production and the drug trade have persisted in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is most entrenched.

According to U.S. intelligence officials, profits from the drug trade are enabling Taliban fighters to stream into the country from Pakistan outfitted with expensive boots and substantial winter clothing, new weapons, costly radios and satellite phones, and other high-tech equipment.

Increasing American "boots on the ground" in Afghanistan will help, officials said, and that will be possible as troops and equipment are withdrawn from Iraq. Officials are looking to provincial elections next week in Iraq as an indicator of the country's stability, which will help determine how quickly combat troops can be withdrawn.

Marine officers in Iraq have said for months that their job there is done, and Conway has been agitating for more than a year to have the Marine Corps take over the military mission in Afghanistan and leave the Army to deal with Iraq.

Among the issues to be sorted out by Obama's new national security team are whether 30,000 additional Americans in Afghanistan will be sufficient. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have championed the idea of committing more civilian aid workers to Afghanistan to augment combat troops. But there are almost no additional civilians currently trained and able to deploy, according to State Department officials.

Conway also expressed some concern about whether the 30,000 extra troops McKiernan has requested would be enough for the fight.

He recalled that during the war in Iraq, when he served two combat tours and later was director of operations for the Joint Staff, field commanders were constantly asking for more troops.

Many senior officers believe the Iraq war would have turned out differently had Washington sent sufficient troops at the beginning.

"I am a little concerned" that the same thing will happen in Afghanistan, he said. "I hope Dave McKiernan is right."

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