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Afghanistan's newly appointed "counternarcotics minister," Habibullah Qaderi, was in Brussels this week to attend a NATO seminar on the challenges facing his country. Although NATO and Afghan authorities agree that poppy cultivation and opium smuggling are among the biggest challenges facing Afghanistan, both sides admit there are no easy or quick solutions. NATO is unwilling to commit troops to enforce a poppy eradication drive, while Afghanistan's new government says its farmers -- many of whom are heavily dependent on poppy cultivation -- cannot be robbed of their livelihoods without hefty Western subsidies.
Brussels, 21 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Afghanistan now has its first-ever government minister directly in charge of tackling the drugs trade, which represents some 60 percent of the country's total economy.
However, the appointment of Habibullah Qaderi is unlikely to bring immediate improvements to the situation.
Speaking at NATO headquarters in Brussels on 20 January, Qaderi said his government will -- for the foreseeable future -- limit itself to conducting police crackdowns on smugglers and laboratories producing heroin from opium extracted from the poppies.
Large-scale eradication of poppy fields will have to wait, he said, not least because the money involved in the trade makes it a highly sensitive issue in the runup to local and parliamentary elections, tentatively scheduled for May.
"We will be careful with the eradication," Qaderi said. "Certainly, it's in the plan, but we have not yet decided how to do it [or] when to do it. You know, to take away the livelihood of the farmers could create security problems in certain parts of Afghanistan, especially at this moment in time, because the elections [are] coming."
Qaderi cited recent statistics from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which found that the drug trade accounted for about 60 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product in 2004. That amounts to almost $3 billion.
The minister said an eradication drive is not be economically viable before alternatives are found to provide farmers with sustainable livelihoods.
"That's why we don't have to be in a hurry to eradicate the whole thing in one year's time," Qaderi said. "Then we [would] lose $2.8 billion and it is very, very important -- this money -- for the Afghan economy."
Hikmet Cetin, NATO's chief civilian representative in Afghanistan, acknowledged the same difficult truth -- that decades of war have left Afghanistan with few of the roads, irrigation networks, or markets necessary for farmers to cultivate more traditional crops.
"Now for the farmers, [poppies have] day by day became the only crop, the only source of income," Cetin said. "And the farmers get only $1 billion every year on average from opium, but its [worth]...is maybe $40 billion in the European market."
Qaderi indicated that if the West -- and specifically Western Europe, the main market for Afghan heroin -- wanted to cut this involuntary subsidy to the dark side of the country's economy, substantial funds needed to be made available to provide farmers with alternative incomes.
He avoided saying precisely how much money would be needed.
Qaderi also said Afghanistan needed more international troops to help prop up what he called the "security side" of confronting the country's drugs economy.
Cetin appeared to rule out NATO involvement, however. He said NATO has no mandate and no capacity to go after drug producers in Afghanistan. He also warned that attempts to take them on could destabilize the country in the "crucial" period before the elections.
"To have a kind of fight with the farmers, I think, will destabilize Afghanistan, will be an element of destabilization of Afghanistan," Cetin said. "It is very critical -- the next six-month period. And not only that, we do not have the mandate. Generally speaking in Afghanistan, we are responsible for supporting the peace and stability in Afghanistan, [and going after drug producers] will destabilize -- it is my view -- in the next months the situation in Afghanistan. We have to be very careful."
Cetin acknowledged, however, that in the long term, the stabilization of Afghanistan would be impossible without effective counternarcotics measures.
Cetin did promise NATO support in expanding the areas of responsibility of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which are operated by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).
He said ISAF would also provide security for the parliamentary elections and would continue to support the country's disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process, known as DDR.
Cetin said the security situation in the country was "getting better." He said that the "mass threats" posed by Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or forces loyal to renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar had receded.
Cetin also said the Afghan National Army is "getting on its feet" with the help of U.S. training. It now comprises 16,000 men and should expand to four corps of troops by the time of the elections -- to be stationed in Mazar-e Sharif in the north, Herat in the west, Kandahar in the south, and Gardez in the east.
Afghanistan's police force, which is under Germany's supervision, now numbers 33,000 men. Cetin said the eventual target is 62,000 men. Particularly important, he said, is the training of specialized forces for border protection and counternarcotics operations.
Cetin said the DDR process was going well, but added that reintegration must be improved. He said more than half of nongovernment forces had already been disarmed and demobilized and that he expected the process to conclude by 31 March, the Afghan new year.
Cetin also called on the international community to provide Afghanistan with a new "road map" after the parliamentary elections, complete with another international donors conference.