Poppies for Bin Laden

With spring coming soon in Afghanistan, thousands of farmers are preparing to nurture young poppy plants. By summer the plants will ooze with opium that's made into heroin to feed the global drug trade that generates the cash for Afghan warlords, the Taliban, and, ominously, Al Qaeda.

It's flower power the world doesn't need.

On Monday, NATO's military commander, US Marine Gen. James Jones, said the drug trade in Afghanistan must be curbed because it is "an economic lifeline which probably fuels what's left of the Taliban and Al Qaeda."

The question is: Who will tackle the problem?

Some 10,000 American soldiers are too busy trying to find Taliban and Al Qaeda guerrillas in the continuing Operation Enduring Freedom, more than two years after the Taliban were ousted. Some 5,500 NATO troops are acting mainly as peacekeepers, protecting a new government. And the new Afghan military and police forces are largely still in training.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan could be heading toward becoming a failed state again. The rapidly expanding narcotics trade is eating into the early progress toward stable government and economic growth.

After being banned under the Taliban, the opium trade has ballooned, and may now account for more than 40 percent of the Afghan economy, supplying much of the world's heroin. The British, after being charged with solving the problem, tried to pay farmers to eradicate poppy fields. But the financial incentive only led new farmers to jump in. And no one has found an alternative crop that's as lucrative.

One elite unit of Afghan police was recently able to conduct a major raid on a drug factory. US planes later bombed the laboratory. But the US is reluctant to do much more for fear of alienating farmers and others while democracy is being built.

The danger is that Afghanistan could become like Colombia and drift into being a "narco-state" mired in guerrilla warfare fueled by drug profits.

Unless the new Afghan forces can be expanded more rapidly to counter the drug trade, the US military should consider more intervention.

The mop-up military fight against guerrillas can go hand in hand with drug interdiction.

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