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Calling In the Drug Cavalry

With a booming opium crop and a swarm of smugglers, Afghanistan turns to experienced Colombian narcotics officers for answers.

September 06, 2006|Chris Kraul | Times Staff Writer

BOGOTA, Colombia — Colombia to the rescue?

Overwhelmed by opium poppy growers and smugglers, Afghanistan is getting help from a country that knows a thing or two about fighting drugs.

A team of Colombian anti-narcotics police, which spent two weeks in Afghanistan, has come up with ways for Afghan authorities to improve their efforts, including training, organization, airport surveillance and better evidence-gathering.

U.S. State Department and congressional sources said Tuesday that they supported the Colombian suggestions and would push to get them implemented.

The U.S. reaction comes on the heels of a United Nations report last weekend that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan so far this year had risen 60% compared with last year, to 400,000 acres. Heroin production could total 610 tons, or a third more than the global demand, the report says.

"We have known it was going to be a huge crop," Thomas A. Schweich, a deputy assistant secretary of State for international narcotics and law enforcement, said in an interview Tuesday. "When you see the stark numbers, it's problematic."

The report stunned some members of Congress.

Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House International Relations Committee, is likely to put the issue at the top of the agenda at a Sept. 20 hearing to review Afghanistan's status five years after the Sept. 11 attacks, said a senior staff member who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

"There's a feeling we're losing it," the staff member said, referring to Afghanistan's war on drugs and efforts to improve security. "There has been a sea of bad news out of Afghanistan."

Two members of the Colombian anti-narcotics team that visited Afghanistan last month described the training, resources and intelligence-gathering capabilities of their Afghan counterparts as deficient.

"It can't be surprising to anyone that they are losing," said national police Lt. Col. Oscar Atehortua, one of four Colombians who made the trip. He said Afghanistan was just beginning to launch an anti-drug force and strategy.

Atehortua and a colleague, Maj. Raul Fernando Lopez, said heroin was easily smuggled through Kabul's international airport because Afghan authorities lacked the human and electronic resources to stop it. They said Chinese and Nigerian smugglers seemed to have free rein at the airport.

The Colombians have offered to provide training at the Bogota airport to Afghan agents on how to detect "mules," or people carrying drugs, by identifying irregular or nervous behavior. It's an offer the U.S. government is likely to underwrite.

The Colombians also suggested the Afghans could do a better job of catching "high-value targets," or leading traffickers, by confiscating evidence at a crime scene, rather than destroying opium labs and arresting whoever is nearby.

The Colombians offered to train Afghans in evidence-gathering.

Afghan authorities also need better air support to assist with major arrests and to track fleeing suspects, the Colombians said. The Afghans have about 14 helicopters and other aircraft to cover a country the size of Texas. U.S. officials say Afghanistan will soon get more aircraft and other drug-fighting resources.

The Colombians suggested that Afghanistan not spray opium crops, the main method used in their country to eradicate coca plants. With as much as 50% of Afghanistan's economy dependent on opium, any widespread success through spraying would be too much of a financial jolt, the Colombians said.

The Senlis Council, a think tank in London, issued a report Tuesday saying that Afghanistan's problem is that farmers have no economic alternative but to grow opium.

Schweich, the U.S. State Department official, said the Colombians' advice was being taken seriously and would probably be implemented with financing from the U.S. and Britain. Afghanistan receives more than $300 million a year from the U.S. to battle drugs, a sum that is expected to increase.

"Colombia has been a narco-economy for decades, and they have learned a lot of lessons on how to target drug kingpins, interdict drugs going across borders, and how to deal with insurgencies being financed by drugs," Schweich said. "All that is going on in Afghanistan as well."

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chris.kraul@latimes.com

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