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U.S. Taking Heat for An Afghan Drug Boom

The Bush administration, already under fire for under-funding the rebuilding of Afghanistan and permitting that country’s warlords to retain their power, is now facing charges that it is allowing Afghan drug production to boom.

The charges, initially raised by a handful of independent experts, were aired at a Senate hearing in May. Critics say the administration has turned a blind eye to an explosive increase in Afghan opium production, either because it cannot control the countryside or because it does not want to undermine regional warlords who profit from the trade and are fighting America’s proxy war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, denied the administration was looking the other way, insisting the American anti-drug policy was serious and urging critics not to expect immediate results.

Production of opium, officially banned by the American-backed government in January 2002, reached 3,400 tons in 2002, according to the United Nations. The 2003 harvest is expected to reach a similar level, making Afghanistan the source of three-fourths of the world’s opium, officials and experts say. Opium, a paste derived from poppy seeds, is the basic component in heroin.

The developments are likely to fuel criticism that the administration has sidelined the war on drugs to favor the war on terrorism or the war in Iraq.

“This is just outrageous,” said Larry Johnson, a former State Department and CIA official who is now a consultant to government and business on terrorism and narcotics. “If any other country was in the position we are and allowing this to happen, we would accuse them of being complicit in the drug trade. The Bush administration is showing benign neglect.”

Democratic Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware has expressed outrage on several occasions over the administration’s apparent toleration of Afghan drug production, most recently in May during judiciary committee hearings on links between international drug trafficking and terrorism.

“Despite President Karzai’s truly valiant efforts, Afghanistan has now regained its status as the world’s largest source of opium,” Biden told the committee. “We can’t separate fighting terrorism and fighting drug trafficking, given the considerable linkages between the two.”

“Afghanistan is the No. 1 opium producer again, this time on our watch,” a Biden aide told the Forward.

While American government estimates are lower than those of the U.N., officials of both the State Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration acknowledge that Afghan production is rising again. They contend, however, that the rise is unavoidable given the lack of overall security and central government control in the country.

The State Department’s international narcotics and law enforcement division is managing a $60 million program in Afghanistan focused on building police and judicial forces and developing alternative crops. This compares to more than $1 billion allocated to eradication efforts in Colombia, the main center of cocaine production.

The official, acknowledging that production in Afghanistan was rising, said it was “disappointing though not unexpected.”

The 2002 and expected 2003 figures mean that production has rebounded to its level in 2000. Output fell sharply in 2001, reaching a low of 180 tons that year as a result of a ban on poppy farming enforced by the Taliban.

Some critics charge that by allowing cash-strapped Afghanistan to cash in on the drug trade, the administration might be using questionable means to help the country regain its footing.

Andrew McCoy, author of the just-published book “The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade,” said that opium was the “ideal drug for Afghan reconstruction” since it requires a massive workforce and little water in a country plagued by unemployment and an arid climate.

The figures are indeed staggering. The U.N. estimates that between 1994 and 2000, Afghanistan’s gross income for opium production was about $150 million per year, or some $750 per family. In 2002, it jumped to $1.2 billion, or $6,500 per family. And income from trafficking is estimated to be as high as $1.4 billion in 2002.

However, little of that money reaches the ordinary Afghan, whose average wage is $2 per month.

Johnson, the ex-CIA official, said the administration had in fact decided to “privatize aid to Afghanistan.”

“The drug users will help rebuild Afghanistan,” he said.

In recent weeks, several American troops, aid workers and Afghan officials have been killed by what American officials say are remnants or sympathizers of the Taliban.

At the same time, the central government is struggling to establish its authority outside of the capital, Kabul, and is locked in a fight with powerful warlords over their unwillingness to send tax and customs proceeds to Kabul.

Critics say the United States may be backpedaling in the war against drugs because it was allied to the warlords, funding them and using them to fight the war against the Taliban and Al Qaeda last year. As it happens, those same warlords control the drug trade, experts said.

This helps explain why the implementation of the ban on opium production and trade announced by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai in January 2002 has been piecemeal, experts said.

“You have a contradiction in the U.S. policy in Afghanistan,” said McCoy, a history professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. “You have U.S. forces chasing the Taliban and Al Qaeda with the warlords-cum-drug lords and you have an effort to build a central government… So you won’t see much U.S. support for the official eradication policy of Karzai because we are in bed with the warlords.”

Several sources speculated that Afghanistan’s drug production may have captured less attention than Colombia’s production among Washington policymakers in part because the vast majority of the Afghan drug ends up in Europe, while 90% of Colombia’s drugs are United States-bound.

Reinforcing those suspicions, American officials have openly hinted that the Europeans should pay the bulk of the Afghan eradication effort. A State Department official confirmed that the administration was “encouraging” the Europeans to do more.

Administration officials contend that the Taliban used its opium policy cynically, banning the drug only to encourage scarcity and raise prices. U.N. figures appear to reinforce this view. The Taliban initially encouraged poppy production, prompting it to reach more than 4,600 tons a year, according to the U.N. Production of the drug — though not the trade — was banned in 2001, leading to a decline in production and a spike in prices, which rose tenfold at harvest time in the summer of 2001 and doubled again that fall, reaching 20-fold before September 11.

Ethan Nadelman, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a private group that promotes alternative drug policies, said that while he lamented the administration’s cynicism, the policy might be viewed as a refreshingly pragmatic, “strategic” stance on opium production.

“We know that when you push production down in one place, it will pop up somewhere else,” he said. “So where does opium production have more strategic interest for the U.S.? Maybe they are better off having it in Afghanistan.”

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