Worry Grows Over Afghanistan's Opium

By T. Christian Miller

Los Angeles Times

October 4, 2004

WASHINGTON — Afghanistan's opium crop this year is set to break all previous records, surging past even the highest levels cultivated during the Taliban regime, top American and international counter-narcotics officials said.

At the same time, U.N. and U.S. officials are increasingly worried by signs of a nascent drug trade developing in Iraq, where smugglers are taking advantage of the continuing chaos and unguarded borders.

Instability in the wake of the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has resulted in one booming market for the production of drugs, and a second potential market for narcotics sale and transit, officials said.

"All post-conflict situations, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, are always characterized by a significant increase in addiction," said Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the United Nations' Office on Drug and Crimes. "The problem is definitely there."

In testimony last month, Robert B. Charles, the assistant secretary who heads the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told Congress that CIA figures, expected to be released in a matter of weeks, show Afghanistan's opium poppy cultivation approaching 250,000 acres, an increase of more than 60% from 2003 levels.

In an interview late last week, Charles acknowledged that the cultivation levels apparently exceed even the previous record of about 160,000 acres of opium poppy reached in 2000 during the Taliban regime, which was aggressively promoting the crop at the time to finance military operations.

Afghanistan is already the world's leading supplier of opium, which can be processed into a variety of narcotics, including heroin. Most of Afghanistan's heroin is exported to Europe and surrounding countries, with less than 10% reaching the United States.

Charles said that although there was growing momentum behind efforts to halt production, the U.S. continued to fear the development of a narco-economy that could swamp Afghanistan's nascent democracy.

"There is a dark shadow that hangs over the country," Charles said. "If we don't do the right thing about tackling this potentially damaging heroin economy, we're certainly all going to regret it." The country's exploding drug production has already become an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. In Thursday's debate in Florida, Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry cited the burgeoning opium crop as evidence of President Bush's "colossal misjudgment" in turning his attention from Afghanistan to wage war in Iraq.

Repeating a U.N. estimate, Kerry said heroin production now equals as much as 40% to 60% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. The U.N. and the Economist magazine's Intelligence Unit have estimated that the value of last year's heroin and opium crop in Afghanistan ranged from $1 billion to as much as $2.3 billion — equivalent to the whole aid package pledged by the U.S. at a March donor's conference in Berlin.

"Iraq is not even the center of the focus of the war on terror; the center is Afghanistan," Kerry said.

Indeed, U.S., U.N. and Afghan officials believe that opium smuggling is a source of funding for Taliban insurgents, Al Qaeda terrorists and criminal gangs operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Much of the opium is exported through the lawless border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan where Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding, officials said. Insurgents encourage small farmers in areas they control to grow the drug, and charge a tax on it for transportation.

During a surprise visit to Afghanistan in August, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld described the drug boom as one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan's democracy, which is preparing for presidential elections Saturday.

"To the extent the demand for drugs continues to produce hundreds of millions of dollars for revenue to ... criminals engaged in the drug-trafficking trade, it is harmful," Rumsfeld said. "We see what happens in countries where that takes place. It's corrosive. It can affect the entire political process. It leads to other types of crime and corruption. It is a very dangerous thing." So far, efforts to stem the production boom have been ineffectual. The British have taken the lead in Afghanistan in eradication efforts, and seized some 34 tons of opiates this year — about 1% of the estimated production.

Efforts by Afghan and coalition forces to convince farmers to give up growing poppy plants also have yielded few results. In a country whose economy remains a shambles, the crop represents one of the few profitable enterprises.

The U.S. has cited Colombia, where leftist guerrillas and right-wing militants also have traded in narcotics to fund their operations, as a model for drug reduction efforts. Coca production is down 21% in Colombia, which remains the single largest source of cocaine consumed in the United States. The U.S. has poured more than $3 billion into Colombia's drug eradication effort, the key component of which is an aggressive aerial fumigation campaign. There are no such efforts underway in Afghanistan.

"Very little has been done effectively to stop" opium cultivation in Afghanistan, said Bathsheba Crocker, a scholar at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington who has closely followed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. "There's not been anywhere near as serious or robust an effort as there should have been." In Iraq, meanwhile, both the U.N. and U.S. officials are concerned about recent anecdotal evidence of an increase in drug trafficking and consumption. Iraq is believed to have been relatively drug-free under Saddam Hussein's rule.

State Department counter-narcotics experts believe Syrian traffickers are making use of Iraq's poorly guarded borders to transport fenethylline, a synthetic drug more commonly known as Captagon that is similar to amphetamine.

The drug is a favorite among the wealthy party crowd in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

Troops from the U.S. Army's 1st Infantry Division recently encountered a "large" amount of drugs and drug paraphernalia during raids against insurgents in north-central Iraq, said Master Sgt. Robert Powell, a spokesman for the unit. He said details of the raid were not immediately available.

Costa, the U.N. official, said his investigators had detected signs of drug trafficking in Iraq last year, during a visit shortly before the bombing of the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad in August 2003.

A decade of sanctions had created a vast network of smugglers in Iraq who sold oil on the world market. After the U.S. invasion, however, oil exports became legal and thousands — perhaps tens of thousands — of people involved in smuggling rings suddenly found themselves out of work, Costa said. Many, it is believed, have turned their skills toward transporting other illicit substances.

"It's not only drugs. We're talking about arms smuggling, artifacts, looted goods," said Mustafa Alani, the head of security and terrorism studies for the Gulf Research Center, a think tank in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "There is no control of the borders." The effort to combat drugs in Iraq is all but nonexistent, with both U.S. and Iraqi efforts focused on controlling the insurgency.

So far, a handful of Iraqi police officers has received counter-narcotics training. The State Department has five drug experts in Iraq, but their mission is only partially focused on trafficking. And the military does not consider counter-narcotics a part of its mission in Iraq, a Pentagon spokesman said.

So far, Iraq's drug trade is limited, but it has few law enforcement barriers to keep it from growing.

"We have to keep our eye on it," said Charles, the State Department official. "It has the potential to become a much larger problem."