Surge in Afghan opium alarms drug fighters

Sales aid ter­ror­ists as troops with­draw

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY KELLAN HOW­ELL

The U.S. mil­i­tary draw­down in Afghanistan is adding an un­ex­pected toll on Amer­i­cans as poppy pro­duc­tion in that coun­try reaches an all-time high, fuel­ing a global opium and heroin scourge that also is fund­ing ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­i­ties.

U.S. tax­pay­ers have spent $7.5 bil­lion over the past 12 years on coun­ternar­cotics ef­forts in­side Afghanistan, but the with­drawal of troops has prompted a mas­sive surge in the drug trade, Amer­ica’s top watch­dog in­side the coun­try warned in a re­port Wed­nes­day.

The nar­cotics sit­u­a­tion in Afghanistan “is dire with lit­tle prospect for im­prove­ment in 2014 or be­yond,” said John Sopko, spe­cial in­spec­tor gen­eral for Afghanistan re­con­struc­tion.

Mr. Sopko’s as­sess­ment is shared by the U.S. Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion, the United Na­tions and other global agencies. Afghanistan pro­duces roughly 90 per­cent of the world’s il­licit opium, ac­cord­ing to the State Depart­ment.

“As we ap­proach 2014 and the with­drawal of in­ter­na­tional forces from the coun­try, the re­sults of the Afghanistan Opium Sur­vey 2013 should be taken for what they are — a warn­ing, and an ur­gent call to ac­tion,” said Yury Fe­do­tov, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the United Na­tions Of­fice on Drugs and Crime.

The lat­est data from the U.N. of­fice show that ap­prox­i­mately 516,000 acres of land in Afghanistan are un­der opium poppy cul­ti­va­tion, an all-time high and a 36 per­cent in­crease since 2012.

U.S. of­fi­cials blame the surge in Afghan opium on the with­drawal of Amer­i­can troops, many of whom led the coun­ternar­cotics ef­fort of the past decade.

The Depart­ment of De­fense and the Counter Nar­cotics Po­lice of Afghanistan told the spe­cial in­spec­tor gen­eral that the draw­down of coali­tion forces in Afghanistan has hurt coun­ternar­cotics ef­forts, es­pe­cially in the south­ern prov­inces of Hel­mand and Kan­da­har where poppy grow­ing is at its high­est. Those prov­inces were the fo­cus of a surge of coali­tion forces and their sub­se­quent with­drawal.

The spe­cial in­spec­tor gen­eral re­ports that there are more than 74,000 acres of poppy fields in Hel­mand prov­ince alone.

Over the past sev­eral years, erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts seemed to have made hardly a dent. Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, since 2008, erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts have af­fected on aver­age less than 4 per­cent of the an­nual na­tional poppy crop.

The num­bers are likely to fall fur­ther this year as the poppy-grow­ing cy­cle and erad­i­ca­tion ef­forts co­in­cide with Afghan elec­tions, tak­ing forces away to help with se­cu­rity at the polls.

The rise in opium traf­fick­ing and pro­duc­tion is alarm­ing to U.S. of­fi­cials, but not for the rea­sons many might sus­pect. Amer­i­can heroin use is ris­ing, but that sup­ply comes mostly from South Amer­ica and not Afghanistan. The real con­cern for U.S. of­fi­cials is that the boom­ing Afghan opium trade — mostly with Europe — is en­rich­ing war­lords, the Tal­iban and Is­lamic ex­trem­ists and help­ing fund ter­ror­ist ac­tiv­ity.

The DEA said many high-rank­ing mem­bers of the Tal­iban are also ma­jor opium king­pins and that ter­ror­ist at­tacks of­ten are funded by drug sales.

In July 2005, sev­eral sui­cide bus bomb­ings in cen­tral Lon­don killed 52 people. DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said these ter­ror­ist at­tacks were funded by the sale of hashish.

“The drugs may never touch the U.S., but the dol­lars that are raised from the traf­fick­ing and the sale of these things are go­ing back to Hezbol­lah and al Qaeda, people that don’t like us very much,” Mr. Payne said. “They have op­er­a­tives all over the world, even here. These are or­ga­ni­za­tions that need money to op­er­ate.”

Mr. Payne told The Wash­ing­ton Times that the prob­lem is an even big­ger is­sue in West Africa, where co­caine from Cen­tral and South Amer­ica is fun­neled through traf­fick­ing groups in un­sta­ble African coun­tries to Europe. Money from sales of the drugs then go back to ter­ror­ist groups in Africa and the Mid­dle East.

“We see global drug traf­fick­ing as not just a crim­i­nal is­sue, not just a rule-of-law is­sue, we see it as a na­tional se­cu­rity is­sue,” he said.

Some of­fi­cials say coun­ternar­cotics ef­forts must be in­creased, not drawn down.

“What is needed is an in­te­grated, com­pre­hen­sive re­sponse to the drug prob­lem. Coun­ternar­cotics ef­forts must be an in­te­gral part of the se­cu­rity, de­vel­op­ment and in­sti­tu­tion-build­ing agenda,” Mr. Fe­do­tov said.

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