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GOP lawmakers press Bush on Afghanistan

Four leading House members call for new tactics to turn the tide in the fight against insurgents and drugs.

February 07, 2007|Josh Meyer | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Four ranking Republican lawmakers on a committee with oversight of U.S. policy in Afghanistan are calling on the Pentagon and State Department to dramatically change their tactics in that country to better contain its growing insurgency and flow of opium to the rest of the world.

In a letter dated today, the GOP House members are urging the Bush administration to act quickly to counter a host of problems in Afghanistan that they say are being made worse by mismanagement and misplaced priorities. They are calling for the appointment of a special coordinator of overall narco-terrorism policy for Afghanistan to prevent losing the fight against insurgents and drug traffickers.

The letter describes in detail how various U.S. agencies such as the Pentagon, State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration are not working together and essentially are fighting separate wars against insurgents and drugs even though they believe that the booming heroin trade is fueling the insurgency and financing terrorist attacks.

"As we will soon face another massive opium harvest in Afghanistan, and a related spring offensive by anti-coalition militants (ACMs), it is time for some new thinking to ensure that Afghanistan does not fall into a failed narco-state status and become, once again, a safe haven for Al Qaeda. We need to act now to prevent that," wrote Reps. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), Mike Pence (R-Ind.), Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Huntington Beach), all members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The letter was sent late Tuesday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, with copies delivered to the White House, DEA, Office of National Drug Control Policy and the British government, said a senior congressional staffer who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the letter.

The four Republicans say they may introduce legislation to enact and fund some of their proposals, but urge the White House to quickly implement other policy changes on its own. Democrats in Congress also have complained about rising drug trafficking and the growing insurgency in Afghanistan.

White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said he had not seen the letter and could not comment on the lawmakers' requests. But he said the administration had been actively reassessing its policies in Afghanistan in recent months as part of a comprehensive "strategic review," which prompted senior officials to call for at least $10.6 billion in additional funding for Afghanistan over the next two years.

The new funding was a recognition "that we needed to make a larger effort ... so that we can help the Afghan government succeed and we can defeat the Taliban," Johndroe said. "But obviously our counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics programs in Afghanistan work hand in hand. This is something that our people are coordinating on the ground."

The additional funding, though much needed in Afghanistan, is virtually worthless without a coordinated policy that ensures that all U.S. counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics agencies are working together, and not against each other, the senior congressional official asserted. "We have so many different views of narcotics within our own government and with our allies that somebody has to bang everybody's heads together and get something done on this," the staffer said. "We are out of time, and losing Afghanistan."

The Republican House members also said the United States must resolve a growing dispute with Britain over how to best fight the booming opium trade. British authorities who are now in charge of much of the counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan are refusing to go along with a controversial U.S. policy to eradicate entire fields of poppy by aerial spraying.

Britain, as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which leads the forces battling the insurgency in Afghanistan, believes the U.S. policy is dangerous because it alienates farmers and the population at large and undermines Western efforts to turn them against the narco-traffickers and the Taliban, several U.S. and British counter-terrorism officials said.

The senior congressional staffer said the four lawmakers didn't want to get into the middle of the dispute over whether poppy eradication should be stopped. Instead, they want the U.S. government and its allies to more forcefully go after kingpins who preside over global narcotics trafficking enterprises that together bring in more than $2 billion a year in wholesale drug profits.

They are urging the Bush administration to force the Pentagon to provide more operational assistance to DEA agents operating in Afghanistan and to order the arrests of senior-level drug traffickers under a provision of the Patriot Act passed last year that allows such suspects to be extradited to the United States for prosecution.

A similar campaign has worked well in Colombia and is urgently needed in Afghanistan because that country has no judicial infrastructure to prosecute drug traffickers, the lawmakers say. "We must establish deterrence where none now exists," their letter says.

They also are urging the Pentagon to make good on a promise to provide at least eight Russian-made Mi-17 helicopters to Afghan authorities and their U.S. counter-narcotics advisors for the drug war, along with qualified pilots and maintenance and operational support.

"We have waited long enough to get this vital air lift...," the lawmakers' letter says. "We need someone put in charge of getting this done now, enough time has gone by already."

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