WASHINGTON -- On Nov. 9 at a villa outside Rome, Rep. Jim Ryun of Kansas asked the exiled King of Afghanistan whether he would commit a future government in his country to outlawing the opium trade. When Mohammad Zahir Shah did not clearly say yes or no, Ryun asked again. The King was still unresponsive.
"I did not get a commitment," Ryun told me. No wonder. Producing heroin for the European continent, especially Britain, comprises 80 percent of the gross domestic product in a pitifully poor country. Afghanistan is the world's leading producer, accounting for 70 percent of all opium. The Northern Alliance, now the principal U.S. surrogate in combat, long has competed with the Taliban for narcotics.
The rapid Taliban retreat has underlined problems of U.S. nation-building in a foreboding country that for centuries has hosted fierce warfare. While the U.S. goal in Afghanistan has been to protect Americans by removing Osama bin Laden and destroying al-Qaeda, the Americans also plan to install a successor government in Kabul. This task's magnitude is shown by King Zahir's equivocation and the Northern Alliance's involvement when it comes to illegal drugs.
Since Afghanistan's heroin goes to Europe instead of North America, Washington's interest was minimal -- until the Sept. 11 attack on America. U.S. officials noted that the Taliban was financed mainly by opium production, including a tax levied on sales. Chairman Henry Hyde of the House International Relations Committee, addressing the House Oct. 3, cited reports that "bin Laden's advisers whisper in his ear that these illicit drugs are yet another way to poison the hated West."
On Oct. 12, Hyde amended the anti-terrorist bill by authorizing $5 million for drug enforcement police training in South and Central Asia. His argument mentioned only the Taliban, but the annual United Nations report on opium poppy production released last month shows most of this year's harvest in Afghanistan came from the 10 percent of the country then controlled by the Northern Alliance.
That was the background when three Republican congressmen, members of the speaker's Drug Task Force, visited King Zahir at his heavily guarded Italian home located on a private golf course. They were encouraged that reports of the 87-year-old long-exiled monarch's senility were greatly exaggerated. Zahir crisply declared his contempt for the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and expressed his willingness to help establish a new government.
The trouble came when Ryun asked whether the king opposed cultivation of opium, and he replied that Afghanistan is not the only country producing drugs. Ryun persisted, asking Zahir's personal opinion of opium. Annoyed, the king replied, "I smoke cigars." Rep. John Shadegg of Arizona, who was present, interpreted this as meaning the king did not want to alienate tribesmen whose only income is from opium.
Drugs are not the only sin of Washington's new best friends. Human Rights Watch, while conceding that abuses are a way of life in Afghanistan, last month issued a serious indictment of the Northern Alliance. It noted reports of "summary executions, burning of houses and looting, principally targeting ethnic Pashtuns and others suspected of supporting the Taliban."
Human Rights Watch called on the anti-terrorism coalition not to support military commanders with brutal records -- such as Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the famous Uzbek warlord who has changed sides repeatedly during the Afghan wars. As the tide turned last week, Dostum's troops were in the vanguard of the U.S.-supported offensive.
Retired Maj. Andrew Messing, executive director of the National Defense Council Foundation, has parted company with fellow conservatives by opposing unsavory allies in the Philippines, El Salvador and Nicaragua, and now is suspicious of the new Afghan allies. "We always end up with the scum," Messing told me, adding that it "is not in the American interest."
In the earlier Afghan war, Messing refused to join conservatives in supporting the Mujahedeen against Soviet forces because they were anti-Christian and anti-Jewish. Challenged then by colleagues, he replied, "I root for both sides, because the more of each other they murder, the less my son will have to do." The hope was unfulfilled. Messing's son, Erick, is a Navy lieutenant about to join the carrier George Washington in the war zone.