January 26, 2004

January 26, 2004 | Commentary on Middle East

Afghan Abyss

'Long, hard slog" might soon describe Afghanistan as well as Iraq. Despite reports of progress coming out of Kabul, there are signs of serious trouble ahead.

First, the good news: The Afghans, under President Hamid Karzai, have agreed on a constitution, laying the groundwork for democracy and building civil society. National elections are set for June. The economy is booming in the capital, Kabul. Major roads linking the country's north and south have been completed, promising progress for the nation's economy and security.

But here's the bad news: Our efforts to snuff out the Taliban and al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan could shift into a protracted guerrilla war.

The two groups are using funds from the country's booming drug trade to fund fighters and buy weapons - and so increasing their attacks in the provinces along the Afghan-Pakistan border.

If the security situation doesn't improve, aid workers will leave, and the June elections could be jeopardized. (Only 350,0000 of 10 million potential voters have registered so far.) Without drastic action, the newly-minted Afghan state could dissolve into a morass of narcoterrorist mayhem.

An October 2003 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) survey reported that poppy cultivation increased last year, making Afghanistan once again the world's largest poppy field and the producer of 75 percent of the world's illegal opium. The report added:

  • The number of Afghan opium farmers rose to 264,000 (of a population of 26 million).

  • Drugs were generating $2.3 billion for producers (50 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product).

  • Cultivation was spreading to new areas.

UNODC also estimated that more than 500,000 people work in the drug trade, which snakes through Central Asia and Russia into European opium dens, supplying 10 million opium users (of the world's 15 million). And heroin, an opium derivative, is fanning a wildfire HIV/AIDS epidemic in Central Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe.

Afghanistan is "clearly at a crossroads," said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa. "Either major surgical drug-control measures are taken now, or the drug cancer in Afghanistan will keep spreading and metastasize into corruption, violence and terrorism."

Costa added, "There is a palpable risk that Afghanistan will again turn into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists . . ."

The drug trade's role in financing al Qaeda and the Taliban? Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.) is just back from a five-day fact finding trip, meeting with U.S. and local officials in Afghanistan and Pakistan. He told me last week, "Heroin is the No. 1 financial asset of Osama bin Laden . . . and the idea that he is relying on Wahhabi [Saudi] donations from abroad is outdated."

Kirk believes that Osama is now one of the world's largest heroin dealers, siphoning more than $24 million annually from one Afghan narcotics network alone.

The United States - and the international community - can't afford to fail in Afghanistan. The War on Terror as well as the war on drugs depends on it. A democratic revolution in the Muslim world depends on it.

Here's what needs to be done:

Get the American DEA in there: The Brits are handling counterdrug operations in Afghanistan - with limited success. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency has a minimal presence because Afghan opium isn't (currently) getting to American shores. But the December busts of al Qaeda drug mules in the Persian Gulf indicate al Qaeda is looking for new routes - and destinations, like the United States.

More U.S. military involvement: The Pentagon hates this idea, because it sees counterdrugs as a policing activity. But fighting the drug trade will squeeze the money pipeline that lets the Taliban and al Qaeda launch operations against Coalition forces - and the West. The Pentagon and the international community should also accelerate training of the Afghan army (now just 6,000 of a planned 70,000 man force) and national police force to help with the drug war. (A bigger NATO force in Afghanistan, too, could free up U.S. forces for counterdrug ops.)

Disassembling a drug economy can take a long time - better get started now. We don't need another Colombia. We must pull Afghanistan back from that abyss.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Middle East

First appeared in New York Post