US weighs role in heroin war in AfghanistanBy Anne Barnard and Farah Stockman
KABUL, Afghanistan -- The burgeoning illegal opium trade in Afghanistan has become the biggest single threat to democracy, surpassing Al Qaeda and the Taliban and prompting US officials to consider military intervention against the traffickers, US and Afghan officials say.
Even as the Bush administration hails Afghanistan as a major foreign policy success, the country's soaring drug profits now equal about half of its gross national product and have become the principal source of funds for reconstruction, outpacing foreign aid. The drug trade also is fueling corruption at the highest levels of the government, involving army generals and other top officials who routinely work with the US military on antiterrorism operations, according to the officials.
In Washington yesterday, the senior American ground commander in Afghanistan said the United States is considering expanding the role of the roughly 18,000 American troops in the country to help crack down on the skyrocketing drug economy.
"We're assessing exactly how the military's role may be reshaped as we go into this coming year, given the significant threat that drugs is making to the future of Afghanistan," Army Lieutenant General David Barno told reporters. "We're assessing right now how the military will be able to . . . provide further assistance in that fight."
US military commanders have sharpened their focus on the opium poppy trade -- which produces 75 percent of the world's opium and its derivative, heroin -- and plan to target militia commanders who profit from trafficking.
For instance, Hazrat Ali, a former Afghan commander paid by American forces to help fight Al Qaeda, is now widely cited by US and Afghan officials as a key opium trafficker. He is also the police chief of Jalalabad.
"One day, he will wake up and find out he's out of business," Colonel David Lamm, chief of staff for US forces in Afghanistan, said of Ali in a recent interview in Kabul, the capital. "We know where the drug traffic moves, we know who profits, and we are beginning to deal with it."
The approach is a shift for the Pentagon, which has been hesitant to involve the US military in drug-enforcement efforts because its main mission is to combat terrorism. Currently, the standing order to ground troops is to destroy drugs only when encountering them during military operations and not to take initiative on their own against drug warehouses or laboratories. US soldiers routinely have let trucks full of poppies pass on the road once it was clear they weren't transporting Al Qaeda.
"It's only since July that Americans have begun to see the importance of dealing with warlords," said a senior European diplomat in Kabul, on condition of anonymity. "One reason why I'm slightly optimistic about Afghanistan is that the American government appears to have woken up in the last few months to the problem of drugs and the relations of drugs to the power of warlords and commanders."
When US troops first entered Afghanistan in October 2001, they found themselves in a bind: They knew local commanders were involved in a centuries-old drug trade, but they needed help in winning the war against the Taliban.
Major James Hawver, a reservist in Jalalabad in 2002, said Ali's blessing made it easier for US troops to operate in his area.
"He was sort of our benefactor," Hawver said. "He let it be known that if anybody messed with us he'd deal with them." But pressure has been mounting for over a year for the Department of Defense to take more action against traffickers. US Representative Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican, has written to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asking for more intervention and asserting that heroin profits are funding weapons for terrorists and insurgents.
Others argue that Afghanistan's new police and judicial systems are no match for the drug economy, which has become an integral part of the country's much-touted rebirth and the income of too many powerful people.
"I am increasingly worried that the whole economy, the whole social fabric, is going to be dominated by the drug question," said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. "Just like people can be addicted to drugs, countries can be addicted to a drug economy. That's what I am seeing in Afghanistan."
In recent years, it is most often drug money -- not foreign aid -- that has financed shiny new vehicles in towns that had only known donkey traffic and mobile phone communications systems in places that had never had electricity, Costa said.
In 2002 and 2003, income from opium reached $4.8 billion, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, nearly twice that of income from international aid for projects that began in that time period. Next year, it is expected to climb even higher, as two out of three farmers questioned by a United Nations survey said they planned to significantly increase their opium crop.
"Drugs are the principle sources of reconstruction money, far outweighing combined international assistance," said James Dobbins, Bush's special envoy for Afghanistan in 2001.
Much of the country's tax revenues come from the import of vehicles and other expensive goods, largely purchased with drug profits.
President Hamid Karzai, whose newborn central government lacks the reach to confront the problem, told a donors conference in April that "drugs in Afghanistan are threatening the very existence of the Afghan state."
Karzai blamed drug smugglers -- not Al Qaeda or the Taliban -- for the attack in September on his vice president, one of the few instances of election violence.
Drugs threaten democracy in other ways. While the slate of candidates in the recent presidential election was largely free of drug connections, local parliamentary elections scheduled for this spring are expected to feature a large number of candidates involved in the trade.
"It's not merely about drug money financing candidates. Drug lords are candidates," said Mark Schneider, president of International Crisis Group.
On the road to the northern village of Balkh, the return of the drug economy -- once severely curtailed by the Taliban -- is no secret. Forests of marijuana plants line both sides of the highway. Their pungent smell penetrates passing cars even with the windows shut. The more profitable opium poppy fields lie farther from the road, but their products aren't hard to find.
Kamaluddin Kuchai, a retired small-time commander in the war against the Soviet occupation and the devastating militia battles that followed, says he makes 10 times more growing opium poppies than he would growing wheat, the other major crop in the region.
"When we grow other crops, I cannot earn a living," he said. "We don't do it because we like it, but because we have no other choice."
Kuchai, who is 49 but looks much older with his gray beard and lined face, invited visitors into his tiny sitting room and brought out a plastic sack that made a squelching sound as he laid it on the carpet. Inside was a brown paste the consistency of cake batter, raw sap from his poppy fields. A kilo brings between 3,000 and 12,000 afghanis, or $60 to $240, depending on the quality, he said.
Poppy sap and marijuana are traded openly in Balkh's central marketplace, along a road ringing a circular park where tall trees shelter a 500-year-old shrine, he said.
Kuchai and his friends describe a business that involves most of the community: The police chief's son charges a tax on all sales.
This past July, in a rare move, the police chief in Balkh seized a cache of drugs and accused a powerful local commander of trafficking. But instead of being punished, the commander, Atta Muhammad, was swiftly promoted. His new job: governor of Balkh Province.
Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report from Washington. Barnard reported from Afghanistan; Stockman from Washington.
Meet The Family
Just For Chemists
Heroin after the Taliban
Opium cultivation and the warlords
Afghanistan, Opium and the Taliban
Afghan farmers prepare fields for poppies
Should opium poppy production be legalised?
The Heroin Trail: Britain, USA and Afghanistan
"Taliban prepare to unleash their deadliest weapon"
Osama bin Laden: "heroin dealer" and "narco-terrorist"
Opium production spreading in post-Taliban Afghanistan
Opium and the new Afghanistan: a drug smuggler's paradise