Brussels, 26 May 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Already a virtual "narco-economy," Afghanistan is on the verge of becoming a "narco-democracy" -- a country where not only most of the wealth derives from the drug trade, but where drugs also determine who has power.
That's the view of French parliamentarian Pierre Lellouche, who just returned from a visit to Afghanistan. Lellouche added urgency to recent press reports suggesting NATO is struggling to staff and equip its Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan.
"Instead of a new state going towards democracy, we may end up with what I would call a 'narco-Islamic state,'" -- Lellouche
Speaking to RFE/RL, Lellouche said that unless NATO and its partners find 3,000 to 4,000 more soldiers to secure presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for September, the polls are in danger of being won by local warlords and drug traffickers.
"The danger is that -- I have seen, and some people, of course, are aware of it in Kabul -- is that the election to be held in September will actually increase the power of the warlords by giving them public legitimacy when they enter parliament. And we may end up, instead of a new state going towards democracy, we may end up with what I would call a 'narco-Islamic state,'" Lellouche said.
Lellouche offered a damning summary of the situation -- "there is no security in Afghanistan." He said Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has been unable to establish his authority in the provinces. The provinces are instead ruled by warlords and factional commanders, who also collect the taxes and customs duties.
Local strongmen, most of whom fought both the Soviet invasion and the Taliban, field private armies totaling some 45,000 men throughout the country. The Afghan army, being built up by the United States and France, only has 7,500 soldiers.
Although the U.S.-led coalition has about 13,000 to 15,000 men in Afghanistan, they mostly fight Taliban and Al-Qaeda units in the south and east. Meanwhile, Lellouche said, the 38 nations comprising the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) field 6,000 troops in Kabul. Only 2,000 of them are combatants. The remainder performs support duties.
This means, he warned, that Afghanistan's Western sponsors -- who have invested $4 billion into the country over the past two years -- could lose their investment unless they act soon.
Another NATO source, who asked not to be named, told RFE/RL that in most parts of the country, securing the September elections would only require the physical presence of Western forces in the regions between August and October. He says local militias shy away from direct confrontations.
Lellouche said NATO will need to persuade allies to contribute troops and helicopters -- both in short supply now. He said Spain, which recently withdrew its soldiers from Iraq, would be particularly welcome to join ISAF under the joint Franco-German command, which will take over in early August.
Lellouche warned that the "window of opportunity" to secure Afghanistan is closing fast. "Well, as you know, everybody is short of forces now. Everybody is looking at the situation in Iraq," he said. "Clearly no one is eager to put priority in Afghanistan, and I regret it, because, again, if we don't pay attention, we may end up with a bad situation there in a few months' time. So, I hope people realize that at the G-8 meeting [in June], also at the NATO [summit] in Istanbul [in June]. The request for more forces has been channeled through NATO, and I hope the political leaders will do their job before the end of this month, because the window for decision is now. After that, it's going to be too late."
Lellouche warned that the blossoming drug trade presents the greatest danger to Afghanistan's future. Most of it is directly controlled by the warlords and contributes to their power base. "The worst problem is that these local warlords are, most of them, if not all of them, directly involved in drug trafficking," he said. "In the last 2 1/2 years since the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan has become the world's largest producer of heroin. There is about 130,000 hectares, producing 80 percent of the world production of heroin. That is 50 percent of the [gross domestic product] of Afghanistan, and 10 times the income of the state of Afghanistan. That means that the warlords are very powerful. And in the face of that, Western forces are just not numerous enough to either force disarmament or seriously go after the drug trafficking and drug production in Afghanistan."
The anonymous NATO source says that in the absence of strong Western support, the twin projects of decommissioning local militias and eradicating poppy fields have stalled. He said Karzai's government is unable to put any pressure on the warlords, 40 percent of whose private armies were initially supposed to be demilitarized by June. The source said coalition officials also admit the poppy-eradication plan has failed. So far, 200 hectares have been cleared. The goal was 10,000. Again, the fields are heavily protected.
The official said NATO governments and other allies feel there is "no choice" but to hold the presidential elections in September. However, he said, holding simultaneous parliamentary elections may prove impossible. He said Afghanistan lacks the necessary institutions and legislation.
NATO and European Union officials have long insisted that Afghanistan's future president must be balanced by an elected parliament, which would also offer political representation to Afghanistan's many tribes.