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Afghan narcotics add to woes

WHEN I arrived in Afghanistan last month I had expected to find that the country's major problems would include a lack of security, a resurgent Taliban, corruption, warlords, economic woes, and a weak central government. I found all of that, but I came away thinking that Afghanistan's most serious long-run problem is something quite different but closely related to all of the above: heroin. Ironically, the Taliban suppressed the opium poppy for a short time, but since they lost power the hillsides of Afghanistan are now once again under opium cultivation as more and more Afghan farmers turn to a crop that pays like no other. The danger to a weak and unstable state such as Afghanistan cannot be overestimated.


"Provinces that never grew poppies are growing them now," said President Hamid Karzai. "We have an excellent chance to have a legitimate economy, but we will never have stability here if the economy is criminalized."

Afghanistan is now the world's largest producer of opium, accounting for some 40 percent of the Afghan economy, generating some $2 billion annually, "equal to all the money we have for reconstruction," said Haneef Atmar, minister for rural reconstruction and development. Opium has the ability to finance not only the warlords, whom the government is trying to co-opt and cajole into surrendering power, but also the Taliban and even Al Qaeda.

So far, Afghanistan is in the wholesale opium business, with most of the heroin refining and distribution going on in neighboring countries, but this is changing. Some 85 percent of Afghan heroin stays in the region, experts say, with only 15 percent reaching the West. But with an estimated one million addicts (out of a population of 25.7 million), "this is a disaster for us," says President Karzai, along with an increase in that handmaiden of heroin use, AIDS.

"Everything could be threatened if the government doesn't take this seriously," said Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official who is now minister of finance. "The US is not helpful. They say we can be OK in 10 years, like Thailand, but if we wait 10 years there will be a drug dealer sitting in my house."

The United States would like to be helpful but is of several minds. The US military doesn't want to touch the problem, saying that US troops are still fighting and there is no point in alienating the countryside by getting into the drug eradication business until they can get on top of the security problem. But there are civilians in the American embassy who fear that the Afghans "are in danger of losing their country" to narco-terrorist drug dealers, that a Colombian type situation could quickly evolve. Even if the United States were to assist in ridding the country of only 20 percent of the opium crop it would "send a signal that drugs dealers can't act with impunity here," one American argued.

Afghan leaders in the provinces warn that it is no good destroying opium unless there is something to replace the farmers' lost income, that too-sudden eradication without a money-making crop replacement would be destabilizing. The British, who under the Bonn agreement for international cooperation in Afghan reconstruction are in charge of antinarcotics programs, agree, but no one has come up with a crop as lucrative as opium.

Afghans complain that an earlier British effort to buy the opium crop in certain areas had backfired, because when word got out farmers switched over from food producing to opium in anticipation of buyouts.

Americans also have produced unintended consequences. American wheat donated to Afghanistan, for example, made it more difficult for Afghan farmers to sell their excess wheat crops, therefore depressing the price and encouraging more farmers to go into opium growing, Afghans say.

The Bush administration was quick to declare victory in Afghanistan so that it could clear the decks for the invasion of Iraq. But the war is not yet won in Afghanistan. Security continues to deteriorate, and to succeed the United States and the international community are going to have to stay involved for another seven to 10 years.

However, international donors and US taxpayers will be less likely to support Afghanistan if it evolves into a narco-state. That should worry the United States, not just Afghanistan.

H.D.S Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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