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St. Louis Post Dispatch

U.S. officials grapple with worsening narcotics trade in Afghanistan
By Philip Dine

WASHINGTON - The illicit Afghan narcotics trade is taking a sharp turn for the worse despite major efforts by U.S. and Afghan forces over the past year, continuing to fuel an insurgency that is increasingly killing American soldiers and destabilizing the country.

In light of dramatic figures expected to be announced in Saturday by the United Nations, U.S. officials plan a shift in policy including getting tougher with regional Afghan officials who fail to meet new goals for destroying poppy fields in their areas, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has learned.

The United States could urge that local Afghan officials who don't act aggressively enough be fired, while those who reduce poppy cultivation would get money for economic development. The U.S. action is spurred by concerns that a record of 375,000-400,000 acres might be under cultivation, up from 267,000 acres last year.

And a push is likely in Congress next week for aerial spraying of poppy fields - a highly sensitive matter bitterly opposed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai because it recalls the specter of the Soviet occupation and could spark social unrest among impoverished farmers.

Opium extracted from Afghan poppies is turned into the bulk of the world's heroin supply, with profits helping fund the Taliban resurgence, four years after its U.S.-led overthrow. The tyrannical regime provided a haven for Osama bin Laden to train al-Qaida terrorists and plan the Sept. 11 attacks.

"We know the numbers are bad, and that we need to do better," said Tom Schweich, the State Department's point man on the Afghan narcotics trade. "I don't know the exact number but it'll be high, very high."

At the same time, Schweich contends it is too soon to call the U.S. effort a failure.

"It takes a while to get a huge poppy problem under control," Schweich said. He also says the U.N. statistics won't reflect eradication done over the past year, because many farmers who have seen fields destroyed will be deterred from planting for the next season - which begins later this fall. The poppy acreage currently being counted was planted last fall, before the U.S. effort intensified.

About 10 percent of Afghanistan's poppy fields have been eradicated this year, more than before, Schweich said. Efforts at public persuasion, providing alternative crops for farmers, interdiction of drugs being trafficked and prosecutions also have increased, he said.

Critics counter that U.S. policies are flawed because they stress punitive actions. Emmanuel Reinert, London-based head of the Senlis Council, a European global security think tank, says that absent economic development, eradication of the Afghan fields actually worsens the situation in the country.

". . . You alienate the local population and they go directly to the Taliban, who provide them with protection and compensation," Reinert said. "I'm not saying this is likely to happen, I'm saying it is happening. We have pictures of starving kids because the fields of their parents have been eradicated, and those people are turning back to the Taliban."

He argues that the United States doesn't have the luxury of time.

"The State Department has been pursuing very similar eradication policies in Latin America, with very little success so far," he said. "In Afghanistan we cannot afford that kind of thing, because we are dealing with a country that is at the nexus of the war on terror. It's not about drugs, it's about Afghanistan going back to the Taliban."

Barnett Rubin of New York University's Center on International Cooperation, has served as a special advisor to the United Nations on Afghanistan. He also says economic development is the key.

"Where are our programs to expand irrigation? Where are our programs for agricultural credit and debt relief? Rural electrification? The effort is a fraud," Rubin said. "Afghanistan needs a concentrated effort to bring development and security, but because the Bush administration never took Afghanistan seriously, immediately went to Iraq, and has always under-funded Afghanistan, we do not have anything like the programs we need."

Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., says the situation is drastic and strong law-enforcement action is required. "This will be an unprecedented crop," he said, calling the anti-narcotics effort "a disaster" whose failure has "dramatically fueled the resurgence of the Taliban."

When the House Appropriations Committee convenes next week to discuss Afghanistan. Kirk said he would call for aerial spraying,

"Aerial spraying is critical to the success of the program," he said, adding that its deterrent effect would likely mean that only a few fields would have to be sprayed before farmers agreed to grow legal crops, even if they're less lucrative.

"The minute they hear a neighbor has been sprayed, they will self-eradicate their fields and see what money is available in the alternative development programs," Kirk said.

But that would alienate farmers trying to eke out a living and make governing even harder, said Ashraf Haidari, political counselor at the Afghan Embassy in Washington. A major reason for the increase in poppy growing this year is the failure of Afghanistan's allies to provide enough money so Afghan officials "could deliver the assistance we promised the farmers, the alternative livelihoods," he said.

Last week, Karzai called for a new strategy against opium, saying the current effort has failed. His plan appears to partly resemble what the United States intends to introduce, because both would set regional eradication goals based on what other local options farmers have.

While the Afghan government has the final say over policies enacted in its country, the United States has a good deal of influence and, because of the money it contributes, is in a position to help reward regional officials who succeed.

Mohammed Nabi Hussaini, a senior official in the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics, applauded the idea of firing or prosecuting regional officials who fail to deliver because of corruption, while rewarding those who perform.

"Eradication is without doubt the deterrent factor in controlling poppy cultivation," he said.

Ali Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister who worked closely on the anti-narcotics effort, said he believes the U.S.-led program will work over time.

Schweich, the No. 2 official at the State Department's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement division, will meet in two weeks in Kabul with representatives from Britain, Afghanistan and other allies to plan the new policy.

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