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August 11, 2004 - The Hindustan Times (India)

US-Led Forces Prepare To Combat Drug Trade In Afghanistan

By John J. Lumpkin, Associated Press

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US-led coalition forces are preparing a coordinated effort to attack the narcotics trade in Afghanistan, recognizing that drug income could be used to fund insurgents and terrorists in the country, US Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld says.

He offered few specifics, but noted the British government previously has taken the lead in working with President Hamid Karzai's administration to address the drug trade in Afghanistan. "There are plans being finished now," Rumsfeld said on Tuesday, in Oman for the first of several visits to US allies in the region. "I don't want to get into whose troops will do what."

The cultivation of opium poppies has resumed and flourished since 2001 in Afghanistan. It was largely eliminated under the Taliban's religious policing, but farmers have resumed cultivating and harvesting the profitable crop in the chaos since the fall of the Taliban.

American military commanders in Afghanistan have said previously they don't have enough troops to go after the poppy trade and still hunt Taliban and Al-Qaeda holdouts.

Rumsfeld seemed resigned that the poppy trade would continue to some degree, saying demand for the drug will always lead someone to create a supply. Heroin made from Afghan poppies generally reaches markets in Europe and Russia.

"All crops have been good the last two years," he said of Afghanistan's poppy cultivation. "It is a terrible thing. It produces great wealth for people who use it to harm society." The criminal elements are naturally opposed to a strong, democratic government in Afghanistan, he said. He also suggested drug money had ties to Taliban or Al-Qaeda, but provided no concrete information to back that up.

United Nations surveys estimate Afghanistan accounted for three quarters of the world's opium last year, and the trade brought in US$2.3 billion, more than half of the nation's gross domestic product. New surveys suggest even more has been planted this year, with Robert Charles, the US State Department's top counter-narcotics official, saying Afghanistan may be on pace for a world record opium poppy crop this year.

Rumsfeld pointed to the drug war in Colombia as a partial model for efforts in Afghanistan. There, US-trained military forces attack narcotics smuggling routes while the Colombian government tries to eradicate coca growth in the farmlands through aerial spraying.

The costly Colombian campaign, a US$3.3 billion, five-year military aid package known as Plan Colombia, has provided Colombian forces with training, equipment and intelligence. It has led to a huge increase in drug seizures, and closer judicial cooperation between the countries has led to the extradition of 120 alleged drug traffickers to the United States for trial in two years. Despite the progress, cocaine prices on US streets remain unchanged, a sign that there is no shortage of the drug. And the program to fly crop dusters over Colombian coca fields and spray them with herbicides has drawn sharp criticism from environmental and other groups.

Meanwhile, Rumsfeld hailed Afghanistan's efforts to prepare for presidential elections in October, citing figures saying more than 9 million Afghans have registered to vote, including 3.5 million women.

"If those numbers prove out, that's an enormously successful registration process," he said.

Karzai is clearly the American favorite, but Rumsfeld and other officials have avoided endorsing him, saying the US government will work with whomever the Afghan voters choose.

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