The Afghan crisis

Posted: Feb 03, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Afghanistan, portrayed as a victory in the U.S. war against terror, is a disaster in the war against drugs. Its production of heroin has soared over the last year, with the country becoming the world's top supplier. Faced with this looming catastrophe, the Bush administration is deeply divided.

 Almost everybody familiar with the drug war believes aerial spraying to kill the poppy plant must be instituted sooner or later in Afghanistan, but it surely will be later. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has ruled out eradication by air. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld agrees with Karzai and opposes expanding the U.S. military's role in Afghanistan.

 That description hardly does justice to the intense feeling at high levels of the administration. Debate rages not only over aerial eradication but also over use of helicopters and who should train Afghan police. Meanwhile, billions of dollars pour out of heroin production, threatening to turn the jewel of the war against terrorism into a narco state.

 The numbers, measured by the CIA, are daunting. In 2003, 151,000 acres yielded $2.8 billion of heroin. In 2004, the acres totaled 509,000 -- an increase of 239 percent, bringing in $7 billion. That means Afghanistan outstripped Colombia, Burma, Laos and Thailand to be tops in heroin.

 Rep. Henry Hyde, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, issued this statement Jan. 25: "Until the time the newly democratic Afghan government signals its support for aerial spraying of illicit crops, we need a very robust and effective interdiction strategy to go after the heroin labs and the Afghan narco-terrorist kingpins." Four days earlier, Hyde wrote Condoleezza Rice before her confirmation as secretary of state to warn that "time is not on our side on the Afghan drug and related terrorism issue."

 Behind Hyde's warning are nightmarish consequences if narcotics in Afghanistan continue to proliferate. According to U.S. intelligence, lavish drug proceeds from Afghanistan are distributed among the HIG (Hizbi Islami Gulbuddin) terrorist group, the IMU (Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan) seeking a pan-Arab caliphate, remnants of the Taliban and the al Qaeda organization.

 A danger is that well-heeled Afghan drug lords in Dubai and Karachi, like their predecessors in Colombia, soon will intensify assassination attempts against Karzai and his colleagues. Even before that happens, enrichment of the world's worst terrorists carries serious consequences. What helped turn around the situation in Colombia was a body blow to the coca crop by heavy use of aerial spraying.

 Rep. Mark Kirk of Illinois, a State Department political appointment in the first Bush administration, last week returned from his annual visit to Afghanistan. While accepting for now Karzai's ban on aerial eradication, Kirk is intent on improving the capabilities for knocking out heroin processing laboratories. That means immediate U.S. reinforcement of Afghan police with helicopters. Critics on Capitol Hill are alarmed by reports that the choppers will come from Israel -- an unsettling prospect in a Muslim country.

 Rumsfeld, the strongest figure in the Bush Cabinet, wants to limit U.S. involvement in the Afghan drug war to avoid mission creep. What congressional delegations pick up on the ground in Afghanistan sometimes supports the defense secretary. U.S. officers in the field say they get more help from local farmers if they make clear they are after al Qaeda, not drugs. That begs the question of what happens if nobody goes after drugs.

 At the same time, Rumsfeld is pressing for Defense Department control of police training in Afghanistan now handled by the State Department. While there is sentiment in Congress that State is not equipped for this work, the U.S. military's long record of training foreign police officers is not reassuring,

 Kirk, a rare congressman with personal experience in this touchy area, is concerned. "If DOD [Department of Defense] takes over all police training," he told me, "there may be a U.S. uniform present for every police interrogation, and that's unfortunate."

 The war on terrorism is difficult enough when not intertwined with the war on drugs and intense rivalries in the Bush administration. As one official put it to me, does there come a time when U.S. officials have had enough in Afghanistan and say: "I'm not going to risk American lives on a narco state"?