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Pentagon Doing Little In Afghan Drug Fight

U.S. focuses on battling the Taliban, not the opium that funds it.

December 05, 2006|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon, engaged in a difficult fight to defeat a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, has resisted entreaties from U.S. anti-narcotics officials to play an aggressive role in the faltering campaign to curb the country's opium trade.

Military units in Afghanistan largely overlook drug bazaars, rebuff some requests to take U.S. drug agents on raids and do little to counter the organized crime syndicates shipping the drug to Europe, Asia and, increasingly, the United States, according to officials and documents.

While the Pentagon and the Drug Enforcement Administration, or the DEA, have been at odds, poppy cultivation has exploded, increasing by more than half this year. Afghanistan supplies about 92% of the world's opium, and traffickers reap an estimated $2.3 billion in annual profits.

"It is surprising to me that we have allowed things to get to the point that they have," said Robert B. Charles, a former top State Department counter-narcotics official. "It we do not act aggressively against the narcotics threat now, all gains made to date will be washed out to sea."

The bumper crop of opium poppies, much of it from Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, finances the insurgency the U.S. is trying to dismantle.

The DEA's advocates in Congress argue that the Pentagon could undermine the insurgency by combating the drugs that help finance it. Military officials say they can spare no resources from the task of fighting the Taliban and its allies.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that Afghanistan's flourishing opium trade is a law enforcement problem, not a military one. It would be "mission creep" if the 21,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan were to turn their attention to opium, and it would also set a precedent for future combat operations, military officials say.

Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Afghanistan's police forces and British troops in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization peacekeeping operation have the primary responsibility for fighting the Afghan drug problem.

Military officials also fear that cracking down on opium traffickers could alienate the Afghan people and warlords who profit from the trade. An estimated one-eighth of the population is involved in poppy cultivation, and the opium trade is one-third of the country's economy.

The Pentagon has cooperated some with the DEA, but its resistance to doing more has drawn criticism from prominent congressmen, including Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the International Relations Committee.

Hyde and other lawmakers say the Bush administration is making a crucial mistake in not directing U.S. forces to collaborate with the DEA to take down those supplying the Taliban with cash, high-tech weapons and trucks.

"If we don't change the policy soon, and fight both drugs and terrorism simultaneously, Afghanistan may well fall into a failed narcotics state status," Hyde said in a statement.

Hyde has urged the White House and the Pentagon to look to Colombia as a model. Anti-narcotics agents there work closely with the military to target terrorism and drug trafficking.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other officials have asked for more help from the Pentagon, especially stronger support for the DEA.

"We are disappointed that there isn't more and closer cooperation between these two," said M. Ashraf Haidari, Afghanistan's Washington liaison to U.S. military and law enforcement agencies. "We have been saying this since 2003."

Haidari said the DEA and Afghan authorities needed "maximum military support both from ground and air." He complained that there was little coordination between the U.S. and international anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan.

The DEA has about 10 agents in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and rotates small teams of agents and intelligence analysts into the country, two at a time. The teams train and work with Afghan narcotics police, but also do their own investigations.

But DEA agents can't move about the mountainous terrain without helicopters and, in many cases, can't infiltrate well-protected drug operations without backup from troops.

Several dozen kingpins have emerged in the Afghan drug trade who are allied with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, current and former U.S. and Afghan officials said. In the last year, the drug bosses have become more brazen, richer and powerful.

U.S. and Afghan officials say the major traffickers and their hundreds of criminal associates prey on poor Afghan poppy farmers, openly run huge opium bazaars and labs that turn opium into heroin, and truck vast quantities of drugs into neighboring countries. They often return with night-vision goggles, land mines, sniper rifles and other high-tech weapons to use against U.S. and NATO forces.

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