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An Afghan Quandary for the U.S.

Bush administration is split over a response to a likely record opium poppy crop: push for aerial eradication or let local officials handle it?

January 02, 2005|Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writer

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 traffickers.

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 sources said.

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 you.' "

Other administration officials and lawmakers warn that allowing the Afghan economy to become dependent on narco-profits could be even more dangerous.

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' coffers.

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 Committee.

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