A bumper crop of poppies in Afghanistan is prompting Congress to push a reluctant US military into a bigger role to rid the country of the illegal trade.
The reason? Officials have long suspected that the centuries-old opium industry is funding the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan.
But direct intervention is tricky for US troops. If a key part of their counterinsurgency campaign is to win the hearts and minds of Afghans, the thinking goes, Americans can't be seen as the face of an effort to burn fields and eradicate a livelihood that is illegal but central to the country's fragile financial system.
Currently, the US provides only indirect support. Its policy leaves it to the Afghan government to contain the opium trade. By international agreement, British military forces are designated to support the Afghan effort, but they generally do not take an active role against the trade.
With opium production there skyrocketing, the US House of Representatives last week passed a $6.4 billion aid and reconstruction package for Afghanistan that contains a major counternarcotics component. The legislation would create a new position in government that would develop and coordinate a "coherent counternarcotics strategy" for all US government entities working in Afghanistan. The measure includes an anticorruption initiative that would cut funding to Afghan local and provincial governments found to be connected to Islamic terror organizations or narcotics traffickers. The bill, passed by the full House but not yet the Senate, would also require the US military to provide logistical support to as many as 150 US Drug Enforcement Agency personnel, such as flying them in and out of the field to conduct operations.
"You don't get around that country without [Defense Department] assets," says one Capitol Hill staffer familiar with the legislation. "You can't do it effectively."
Lawmakers like Reps. Tom Lantos (D) of California and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R) of Florida, who cosponsored the bill, believe the US has to do more.
"It is the drug trade that allows our enemies in Afghanistan to purchase the weapons with which they kill our soldiers and corrupt the Afghan government," says Ms. Ros-Lehtinen, who believes the legislation's new tools will allow the US government and military to combat the problem more effectively. She says troops should arrest kingpins, not farmers, to avoid angering the Afghanistan people.
Much of the opium production is concentrated in the south, where the insurgency is the strongest. Poppy cultivation is up nearly 60 percent over last year's season, according to US reports. Afghanistan now accounts for more than 90 percent of the opium sold around the world, according to a separate State Department assessment, much of it manufactured into heroin for export to Western Europe and elsewhere.
"It's an enormous problem," says Daniel Markey, a senior analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "It definitely threatens to overwhelm a lot of the activities, maybe all of the major activities we have going on in Afghanistan, and makes our lives more difficult; you can't ignore that."
US officials have targeted the demand, asking nations to crack down on the heroin trade within their borders. But pushing the US military into a more significant role is a danger, says Christopher Langton, a retired British military officer and analyst with the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
"A large part of the insurgency's successful propaganda campaign dwells on the fact that the international community is in Afghanistan in the guise of invaders and occupiers," he says. "If you allow us, the so-called invaders and occupiers, to ravage an Afghan farmer's crop, you just reinforce that message."
Mr. Langton says the problem cannot be addressed in isolation and requires the international community to come up with solutions that don't rely only on what goes on in Afghanistan. "I believe you need a golf bag approach with several golf clubs, and you pick the one that applies to the country you're in," he says.
The White House doesn't support the bill, saying it raises the bar too high and could actually promote more corruption among Afghan officials.
It's not yet clear what the Senate version of the new bill will be. But Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia noted recently that the US military should only be in the background when it comes to this "insidious and tragic situation" of drug revenues in Afghanistan. Mr. Warner, who questioned Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the Bush administration's likely new "war czar" during his confirmation hearings Thursday, said he wanted as much clarity as possible on the military's role.
"I don't want to see the American GIs tasked as the principal persons that have got to go in and clean up this situation," Warner said.
"That's right," came General Lute's response. "This is fundamentally a law-enforcement and governance role, not a military role."