US Military To Take Action To Deprive Small Afgan Farmers Income From Heroin Trade, Helmand To Be Targeted
Saturday, October 11, 2008 2:02:55 PM
The agreement came after strong pressure from the United States, which has identified opium trafficking in Afghanistan — the source of more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin supplies — as a primary target in the stepped-up battle against the Taliban insurgency that American commanders have begun mapping out in recent weeks.
But the accord also accommodates objections from some of the 26 NATO nations that contribute troops to the 50,000-strong NATO force. Attacks on drug “facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency” are to occur only if the NATO and Afghan troops involved have the authorization of their own governments, a provision that will allow dissenting nations to opt out of counternarcotics strikes.
The compromise appeared to satisfy the two American officials who pushed the case for the new policy at a meeting here, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. John Craddock, the supreme NATO commander. Afterward, Mr. Gates said that the accord would allow “some to do things that others did not want to do,” and added, “It’s better than nothing.”
On the drug policy, the United States once again ran into a problem that has beset the Afghan war: the widely-differing levels of commitment by its NATO partners, some of whom have committed troops to the effort, but have insisted that they remain in areas of Afghanistan where insurgent threats are low. Reluctance to widening the NATO mandate to include attacks on drug networks has come from Germany, Italy, Poland and Spain, among other nations.
Their fear has been that attacks on drug lords, laboratories and supply networks will further alienate ordinary Afghans who have grown wary or hostile toward NATO troops, undercutting efforts to curb the insurgency and increasing threats to NATO troops.
The drug trade is estimated to account for about half of Afghanistan’s meager economy, and some of the nation’s poorest people, including farmers who toil in the poppy fields, are dependent on incomes that flow directly or indirectly from narcotics. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, in a recent survey on the 2008 opium yield in Afghanistan, estimated that the average income for the 500,000 families involved in the opium harvest amounted to nearly $2,000.
There have also been concerns that attacks on drug networks will depend heavily on intelligence supplied by Afghans, which has often proved unreliable, contributing to the deaths of civilians in attacks. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, under pressure from NATO members to rid his government of the corruption and incompetence they say are hampering the war effort, has been increasingly shrill in recent months in his criticism of the civilian toll taken by NATO military action, particularly American airstrikes.
Mr. Karzai has also opposed the forceful eradication of poppy crops, something that did not appear to be sanctioned by the new NATO mandate. Mr. Karzai has argued that other measures, including crop substitution and public education programs, along with foreign aid that provides jobs, are the most effective ways of cutting opium production without the violence likely to be provoked by crop eradication.
But American commanders have concluded that gaining the upper hand in the fight against the resurgent Taliban will require depriving the insurgents of income from the drug trade, which the top American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David D. McKiernan, estimated at a Washington briefing last week to be a minimum of $100 million.
Despite the misgivings among some NATO allies, the American push for a NATO mandate that includes attacks on drug networks fueling the insurgency has been backed by the Afghan government, which reiterated the sentiment at the Budapest meeting.
The need for more aggressive action against the drug lords has also been pressed by the United Nations drug agency. In its August report, authored by its executive director, Antonio Maria Costa of Italy, it noted the “inextricable link between drugs and conflict,” and without referring to or sanctioning military action, said that something needed to be done.
Beyond that, the American commanders have been supported by Britain, whose 8,000 troops in Afghanistan are second only in numbers, among NATO nations, to the 33,000 American troops. British support is particularly significant, since most of the British troops are concentrated in Helmand Province in the southwest, the heartland of the opium trade and one of the most intensive battlefields of the insurgency. United Nations figures estimate that Helmand alone accounts for more than 50 percent of the country’s opium production.
According to the recent United Nations survey, 98 percent of Afghanistan’s opium comes from seven provinces in the southwest, with no opium at all produced in half of the country’s 34 provinces. The bulk of the NATO troops operating in the southwest come from the United States, Britain, Canada and Denmark, and it is those nations that are likely to be most affected by the new NATO mandate.
Together with the United States, Britain and Canada have already taken the heaviest casualties among the NATO nations fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda, with NATO troops who have died in the seven-year war now approaching 1,000, including more than 600 Americans.