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Bush administration to go after Afghan opium trade

In the three years since the US overthrew Afghanistan's Taliban regime in the wake of the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, Afghanistan has reemerged as the world's leading opium producer. Last year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the country was responsible for 73% of global opium production, and in new estimates released in late-November, the UNODC is predicting a 64% increase in production over last year.

Despite an increasing chorus of protests from the European and Asian nations most affected by the massive outflow of opium and heroin from Afghanistan, US policymakers have paid little more than lip service to attempting to eradicate the trade. Given the huge role opium plays in the Afghan economy - amounting to half of the country's Gross Domestic Product by some accounts - and the ongoing insurgency by the ousted Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies, that may have been a wise course, if one that contradicted broader US prohibitionist aims.

The Washington Post reported in late-November that after a summer-long review of the Afghan situation, the Bush administration has decided to try to break the back of the Afghan opium trade. According to the Post, the plan calls for greater eradication of poppy fields, alternative crop development, and increased law enforcement. While US troops will support the anti-drug effort, at the Pentagon's insistence they will not be directly involved in eradication, instead limiting their role to intelligence gathering, air support, and tightening security on the country's porous borders.

According to "officials" cited by the Post, the plan calls for shifting $700 million from other programs into Afghan anti-drug efforts next year. That compares with $123 million spent on similar efforts this year by the Pentagon and the State Department. That money will go to a special Afghan interdiction force to be trained by the British, as well as for other anti-drug police units. It will also help pay for a special task force of judges and prosecutors to handle drug prosecutions - a task force that the Post reported will be set up inside the Pol-e-Charki prison on the outskirts of Kabul.

While US troop levels are not expected to increase (at least because of the anti-opium campaign), Doug Wankel, coordinator for anti-drug activity at the US Embassy in Kabul, told the Post the Drug Enforcement Administration plans to increase the number of its agents in country from eight to as many as 30.

Despite its drug war rhetoric, the Bush administration's primary concern is not the welfare of English or Russian junkies, but the prospect that money from Afghanistan's massive opium trade is finding its way into the pockets of anti-US insurgents and renegade warlords. The US military should go in aggressively, said one congressional drug warrior. "Short-term, in order to eradicate the poppy and eliminate the income for those shooting at American soldiers, the US military is going to have to provide protection to those doing eradication," Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), who chairs a Government Reform subcommittee on drug policy told the Post. "There is no other option."

While congressional drug warriors want the US military to be deeply involved in the effort, the military is not thrilled at the idea. Instead, they worry that going after the opium crop will only alienate Afghan peasants. "The last thing we want to do is have US forces running around the countryside doing this sort of thing," said Col. David Lamm, chief of staff for the US military command in Afghanistan. "That would change our relationship with the Afghan people, which right now is very positive," Lamm told the Post.

While the exact nature of the US military's relationship with the Afghan people may be open to debate, going after the Afghan drug trade now would indeed alter the relationship between them, according to experts consulted by DRCNet. "The problem is this. If we want to finish off Al Qaeda and the Taliban, we can't afford to antagonize those elements of Afghan society involved in growing drug crops or other aspects of the drug trade," said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. "To do so would drive a significant portion of the population into the armies of the Islamic radicals because we are jeopardizing their livelihood," Carpenter told DRCNet.

"The UN has estimated that 264,000 Afghan families are involved in opium growing," Carpenter pointed out, "and if you consider the extended family and clan structure there, about six percent of the population is directly involved in opium growing. When you take into account the downstream activities of the Afghan drug trade, somewhere between 20% and 30% of the Afghan population is directly or indirectly involved. Asking the Afghan government to eradicate that trade is akin to asking the Japanese government to shut down its auto and steel industries. It would have a similar economic impact. No rational government would do that, yet that is what we are asking the Afghans to do."

Efforts to disrupt the Afghan drug trade will run up against market forces, said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project for the Institute for Policy Studies. "Cultivation has increased markedly over last year," he told DRCNet, "and as a result, prices have fallen by two-thirds. Farmers who made about $600 last year- doing quite well by Afghan standards- this year will make only about $260. There is a glut on the market, prices are dropping, and now the US wants to start eradicating. What will happen? The supply will shrink, prices will go up, and guess what crop people will be planting more of?" said Tree.

American and Afghan authorities are damned if they do and damned if they don't, said Dr. Tom Goutierre, director of the Institute for Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, one of the leading Afghan studies programs in the US. "Clearly, embarking on a program like this will have an impact on the national economy, as well as individuals, families, and regions," he told DRCNet. "But to not do something now will be tantamount to encouraging the continuing expansion of the opium economy, and much of the challenge to the Karzai government is funded through this trade. If we want to assist the Karzai government in re-creating the Afghan State, we must recognize that the opium trade is at the root of the problem."

For Goutierre, the solution lies in alternative development. "There are alternatives to the opium economy," he said, "and I don't just mean alternative crops. I don't know if there is any crop that can create as much revenue as the opium poppy, but we can look at basic skills training programs so people can be weaned from the drug economy and the militias. And if we can get reconstruction going, people who have those basic skills will be able to find alternative employment," he suggested.

But, he warned, if not done right, the assault on opium could be a disaster. "This requires a kind of blitzkrieg approach," Goutierre said, "not just in suppression, but in the provision of alternatives. We must measure the needs for alternative development and begin that process rather quickly, rather than just destroying the plants. If we are not careful, we could end up creating a self-fulfilling doomsday prophecy."

"This is not a good way to win hearts and minds," warned Tree, who has long experience monitoring the US effort to wipe out the Colombian coca and cocaine trade. There are many similarities between the two efforts, he said. But there is also one big difference: "In Colombia, it is primarily Colombian soldiers who take the heat. In Afghanistan, you have these well-fed, light-skinned soldiers from the US and Britain identified with destroying the livelihoods of these impoverished farmers. There are a lot of American soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan, and they will be targets."

(Reprinted and edited for length from Drug Reform Coordinating Network (DRCNet) online weekly, The Drug War Chronicle, #363 for 11/19/04. For additional information and commentary online, see

Expect increase in heroin addiction in US military

Award-winning writer Seymour M. Hersh wrote in his latest book, Chain of Command, that US Pentagon planners know, but ignore, the facts in UNODC reports. One senior non-governmental official told Hersh, "Everybody knows that the US military has the drug lords on the payroll. We've put them back in power. It's gone so terribly wrong." (Page 155, Chain of Command)

The warlords on the US payroll are expected to 'deliver Taliban and al Qaeda fighters,' claims Hersh. These same drug dealers are also delivering large quantities of heroin to US military personnel. The delivery 'mules' are local Afghans hired for menial work.

Several US military officials told Hersh that "the problem wasn't the Special Forces or Army combat unitsbut the 'logistical guys' - the truck drivers and the food and maintenance workers." It seems there's concern about heroin use in Marine units also, and that most of the drug trade is concentrated on the US military base at Bagram, near Kabul.

While the ordinary US voter will likely be very concerned about the use of narcotics among US troops, Hersh's source insists "the Pentagon's senior leadership has a head-in-the-sand attitude," with no desire to expose or enforce drug laws.

Can we begin asking now what will happen to addicted US soldiers returning from Afghanistan, or from Iraq? Will they get proper drug treatment from underfunded VA hospitals? Will many quit on their own, as did returning Vietnam soldiers? Will lawmakers take notice of these contradictory features of failed, prohibitionist US drug policy? Or maybe it is not failed policy after all, but useful policy trotted out for whatever political purpose is prescribed at the time.

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