Source: Los Angeles Times (CA)
Author: Sonni Efron, Times Staff Writer
Published: January 2, 2005
Copyright: 2005 Los Angeles Times
Contact: [email protected]
Washington -- With a bumper poppy harvest expected in Afghanistan in the
new year, a debate has erupted within the Bush administration on whether
the United States should push for the crop's destruction despite the
objections of the Afghan government.
Some U.S. officials advocate aerial spraying to reduce the opium crop,
warning that if harvested, it could flood the West with heroin, fill the
coffers of Taliban fighters and fund terrorist activity in Afghanistan
and beyond. They estimate the haul could earn Afghan warlords up to $7
billion, up from a record $2.2 billion in 2004.
With the January planting season approaching, the State Department is
asking Congress to earmark nearly $780 million in aid to Afghanistan,
the world's largest opium producer, for a counter-narcotics effort that
would include $152 million for aerial eradication.
Although Afghan President Hamid Karzai has declared a "jihad" against
the drug trade, he has vetoed aerial spraying. And his stance is
supported by some U.S. officials, who warn that attempts at mass crop
eradication in spring, during the campaign season for parliamentary
elections scheduled for April, will alienate rural voters. Instead, they
argue for a delay in crop eradication but a vigorous crackdown on drug
The dispute underscores a vexing dilemma for the United States. Having
ousted the Taliban from power, the Bush administration now finds that
its three main policy objectives in the strategically important country
— counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics and political stability — appear
to be contradictory.
President Bush's Cabinet has discussed the problem, sources said, and
the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan met with Bush in December. But the
White House has reportedly not made a final decision.
"We still don't have a policy," a senior Republican congressional aide
said on condition of anonymity.
The arguments over Afghan policy have cut across the usual
administration lines, dividing policymakers within the State Department,
National Security Council and Pentagon, administration and congressional
Some diplomats as well as many outside experts argue that aerial
spraying, in particular, would be folly.
"You tell them, 'You're voting for a new democratic country,' while
their government is allowing foreigners to come in and destroy their
livelihood?" said Barnett R. Rubin, who was an advisor to the U.N. in
Afghanistan in 2001. "And if you try to destroy it and have the economy
decline by 10%, 20%, 40% in one year, what will the result be? The
result will be armed revolt."
Instead of trying to eradicate this year's poppy crop, the U.S. and
Afghan governments should focus on providing alternative livelihoods for
farmers, improving law enforcement and drug interdiction. Eradication
should only be considered once the political climate is more stable,
argued Mark L. Schneider, a former Peace Corps director now at the
International Crisis Group.
Aerial spraying, Schneider warned, would be tantamount to "providing the
Taliban with a great recruiting slogan: 'Go with us, or they'll spray
Other administration officials and lawmakers warn that allowing the
Afghan economy to become dependent on narco-profits could be even more
One official noted that the Sept. 11 commission estimated that it had
cost only $400,000 to $500,000 to carry out the terrorist attacks on the
United States. "Imagine what they can do with $10 billion. You [can] own
a country with that much money."
Advocates of an aggressive strategy worry that warlords could use drug
profits to influence the coming election. And they argue for swift
intervention before next year's harvest further swells the warlords'
Robert B. Charles, assistant secretary of State for international
narcotics and law enforcement, has asserted in testimony before Congress
that drug profits are "almost definitely" funding the Taliban, which
once banned opium farming, and possibly Al Qaeda as well.
According to Charles, the profits are also flowing to the Hezb-i-Islami
faction led by warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The terrorist group, which
has staged attacks aimed at driving U.S. forces out of Afghanistan, is
loosely allied with the Taliban and has ties to Osama bin Laden.
The U.S. government estimates that poppy cultivation exploded from
150,000 acres in 2003 to 510,000 acres in 2004 — much higher than an
earlier U.N. estimate of 324,000 acres. That works out to potential
profits of up to $7 billion, says Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), who
follows counter-narcotics efforts from the House Appropriations
Worse, according to the United Nations, opium poppies are now grown in
all 34 Afghan provinces, up from 18 provinces in 1999 and just eight
provinces in 1994. (Afghanistan created two provinces in 2004.) The
explosion in cultivation suggests that Afghan drug traffickers are
offering agricultural advice, and possibly credit to farmers who are
switching to the lucrative cash crop, officials said.
For the Bush administration, one of the most contentious issues is the
role of the military in the drug war. The Pentagon has been opposed to
becoming involved in counter-narcotics efforts, viewing it as "mission
creep" that distracts from the military's main job of battling
Moreover, U.S. commanders fear that villagers will stop giving support
and tips about insurgent activity if American soldiers begin interfering
with their biggest source of income. In addition, many drug traffickers
have been U.S. allies in the continuing struggle against the Taliban.
But the State Department and a number of lawmakers have been lobbying
the military for more than a year to help the counter-narcotics effort,
arguing that squeezing drug profits is essential to strangling the
And although the Pentagon is increasingly sympathetic to the argument,
sources said, the State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration
want it to do more: step up intelligence-gathering on drug traffickers,
target and destroy drug laboratories, and participate in special
A senior administration official argued that "the single most effective
way" to fight the drug trade in Afghanistan would be for the Pentagon to
order that opium processing laboratories and heroin storage facilities
be treated like other "core military targets."
Under the State Department's budget proposal, Congress would set aside
nearly $780 million in aid to Afghanistan over the next three years for
counter-narcotics programs: $173 million for interdiction, $180 million
for law enforcement, $5 million for a public information campaign,
including broadcasting anti-drug messages from supportive mullahs, $120
million for programs to develop alternative livelihoods for farmers, and
nearly $300 million for eradication programs.
Congress is expected to approve the funding. "We have a record opium
production that needs to be lowered because so many of the profits are
used to finance Bin Laden and his operation," Rep. Kirk said. "On the
other hand, you have to conduct an anti-drug campaign first and foremost
with political sensitivity."
The eradication budget calls for $138 million for manual destruction —
physically cutting or burning crops — starting in mid-January or early
February in Helmand province in the south, and $152 million for aerial
spraying beginning in March.
But foes say it is politically unwise and potentially dangerous to
public health and the environment.
The senior GOP aide argued that aerial spraying could become a public
relations nightmare, with the United States forced to "explain to our Al
Jazeera listeners that we're not literally poisoning to death" the
U.S. officials say the herbicide used is a very diluted form of
Monsanto's Roundup, a glyphosate that is approved for use in American
gardens and has been sprayed safely in Colombia and elsewhere. They note
that anti-drug crews trying to destroy fields on the ground would need
armed protection in many areas. And they say the sheer size of the
Afghan crop makes aerial spraying the only real option.
"History shows that not a country in the world has been able to
eradicate the crop manually," the senior administration official said.
Immediately after his inauguration last month, Karzai held a conference
with tribal leaders to discuss the drug problem. But the president is
worried about the health and environmental effects of spraying as well
as the political fallout, another senior U.S. official said. His plan
relies on public appeals, better law enforcement and some manual
eradication. The Afghans have told U.S. officials they can cut and burn
more than 74,000 acres this year.
In an effort to change Karzai's mind, some U.S. officials want him to
speak with officials in Colombia about the threat drug traffickers can
But the second official, noting that Karzai is a newly elected head of a
sovereign nation, said the U.S. must not try to pressure him.
"I don't want to get into our internal fight except to say that I
believe it will be foolish to push for aerial [spraying] at this point,"
the official said. "But I wouldn't rule it out indefinitely. We will
have to see if the Karzai plan produces the results he anticipates."
Note: Bush administration is split over a response to a likely record opium
poppy crop: push for aerial eradication or let local officials handle
Karzai Urges War on Opium Trade
An Outbreak in Afghanistan
Poppy Plant Returns To Afghanistan
Kabul Bans Opium Poppy Growing, Trafficking
Afghans Turn To Old Friend: Opium