Afghan progress undermined by drugs

After three weeks of vigorous debates in the loya jirga, Afghans have succeeded in approving a new Constitution for their country. But whether Afghanistan has a presidential or parliamentary system, the focus of controversy is in many respects overshadowed by the burgeoning narcotics trade. Unless checked, the drug trade has the potential to undermine Afghanistan's entire political and economic reconstruction process.

A recent trip to Afghanistan convinced us that along with growing insecurity, the drug trade is the single biggest obstacle to a stable Afghanistan.

This year narcotics accounted for more than 40 percent of the Afghan economy; the UN estimates that Afghanistan's current annual production of 3,600 tons of opium is 75 percent of the world's output.

The struggle to produce a democratic constitution to underpin a stable, unified Afghanistan will bear little or no fruit if the narcotics trade continues to flourish. The Afghan drug lords, tied to terrorists and warlords for support and assistance, have a vested interest in a weak government in Kabul. And these "narcolords" will use all their power to keep the already fractured and volatile Karzai government unstable.

Afghan drug money provides a steady source of finance for groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban. These groups view the Karzai government as a pawn of the US and its allies and they want to drive the international assistance community from Afghanistan. The terrorists target foreign aid workers and contractors, who are essentially undefended, in an effort to push out all international groups working to reconstruct Afghanistan and secure its future. The peace cannot be won while a reliable source of funding from narcotics continues to put weapons and resources into the hands of warlords and the Taliban. The war on terror in Afghanistan has to include an assault on the drug trade.

So far, the international effort to tackle narcotics has failed badly - and, as one Afghan official in Kabul told us, the nation is at a crossroads, at risk of falling into the hands of "drug cartels or 'narcoterrorists.'"

The British, who've had the lead role in dealing with drugs, have achieved little. Their program to pay farmers to eradicate poppy fields has, unfortunately, led to increased poppy production. And the US military and coalition forces have maintained a hands-off policy, studiously avoiding involvement in battling narcotics.

Lacking an effective national police force and functioning legal system, the Afghan central government is powerless to deal with the problem alone. Arrests can be made but, given the legal void, those taken into custody can't be tried. Yet Afghan government ministers, international aid officials, and diplomats we met with all agree that failure to send a forceful, unified message to the drug traffickers that they cannot operate with impunity risks undermining any effort to create stability and security in Afghanistan.

The weak policy requires drastic overhaul. Drug traffickers and poppy cultivators need to know that the current permissive attitude has changed. There is no time to wait for "crop alternatives" before tackling the problem. The growth of poppies has already been declared illegal, and Kabul should start enforcing the policy with a vigorous eradication program. Karzai government officials told us they believe fears of a backlash among farmers and drug middlemen are exaggerated.

Certainly more vigorous antidrug enforcement - under the difficult circumstances of a struggling democracy - will be imperfect. But it would send a badly needed signal to traffickers that the government is serious about containing the drug trade. For the program to be more than mere rhetoric, it is essential that the US military become more actively involved.

By sending Zalmay Khalilzad as the new ambassador in Kabul, the US has made a good start with strategy adjustments. The first step has been to accelerate the training of the new Afghan National Army and national police force, and the second was to expand the Provincial Reconstruction Teams with the aim of increasing security across the country. These welcome changes will mean little in curbing the growth of the Taliban and cutting the roots of Al Qaeda - in short, winning the first battle in the war on terror - without a far more vigorous US participation in an antidrug program.

Dennis Kux, a former State Department South Asia specialist, is a senior policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Harpinder Athwal is communications manager for Citizens for Global Solutions. They traveled to Afghanistan last month as part of a Council on Foreign Relations and Asia Society Task Force mission.

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