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Afghanistan: Drug Trade Is Focus of U.S. Congressional Hearing

With Afghanistan's elections due to be held in just three months, there is growing concern about the country's security. The instability in much of the country outside the capital, Kabul, is made worse because of the growing drug trade in a country that is the world's leading producer of the opium poppy. Several officials from the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush testified yesterday about the problem before a congressional committee.

Washington, 3 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- For the Bush administration, yesterday's hearing by the House International Relations Committee could not have come at a worse time.

The General Accounting Office (GAO), Congress's government oversight agency, had just issued a scathing report on the opium trade in Afghanistan. The report said the drug trade was increasing violence in Afghanistan, already unstable since the U.S.-led invasion to topple the governing Taliban and to disperse Al-Qaeda. According to the GAO, opium trafficking is posing a serious long-term challenge to Western military effort to stabilize Afghanistan. It accused the Bush administration of delaying and not properly monitoring much-needed aid for the Afghan people.

Four administration officials who testified before the committee insisted that the U.S. government was making progress on the security front, but they conceded that drug trafficking is making the task more difficult.

One was Mary Beth Long, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics. She testified that the opium trade enriches warlords, enabling them to gain tighter control over their regions outside Kabul and reducing the influence of the government of Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai. Long said the trafficking also emboldens what she called "unaccountable groups" -- including the remnants of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. This, she said, directly threatens Afghanis and indirectly threatens the United States.

"Narcotics trafficking not only hinders our efforts to defeat extremists and the terrorist forces in Afghanistan, but also our efforts to support the stability and legitimacy of the Afghan central government and to protect the security of the United States," Long said.
"Today, what a farmer can realize for planting a hectare of wheat is about one-thirtieth of what a farmer can gain by planting a hectare of poppy." -- USAID official

Another witness was James Kunder, an official of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which manages U.S. foreign aid. Kunder spoke positively about the antidrug action being taken by Afghan police, with the assistance of British troops stationed in the country.

Kunder said USAID understands the need for police and military interdiction efforts to fight the drug trade in Afghanistan. But he said the cultivation of alternative crops to poppy eventually may accomplish more. For example, he said the production of wheat -- Afghanistan's primary crop -- has increased steadily since the fall of the Taliban.

According to Kunder, USAID is pressing farmers to grow other crops, such as olives. But he said the economics of poppy production has slowed this effort. "Today, what a farmer can realize for planting a hectare of wheat is about one-thirtieth of what a farmer can gain by planting a hectare of poppy," he said. "So those are the kind of economic factors you're looking at. To us [at USAID], it's astonishing that the percentage of Afghan farmers who are actually growing poppy is well under 10 percent."

One problem that the United States may be facing is a lack of help from its traditional allies, according to Representative Tom Lantos. Lantos said the United States' NATO allies are taking what he called a "free ride" -- letting the United States do the bulk of the work on security in Afghanistan, even though European populations are being threatened by drugs from that country.

"They are not contributing enough troops or resources, and I'm beginning to suspect that despite their encouraging and solemn words to our officials, they do not have the will to really participate in bringing peace to Afghanistan or even to participate in a significant way in the global war against terrorism," Lantos said.

NATO has been in charge of the International Security Assistance Force operating in Kabul for nearly a year. It has also discussed plans with the United States to lead a number of Provincial Reconstruction Teams elsewhere in the country ahead of elections.

One of the witnesses sought to portray European contribution in a more positive light. William Taylor, the U.S. State Department's coordinator for Afghanistan, noted that last month in Berlin, international donors pledged $8.2 billion for Afghanistan through 2006.

Although Karzai's government says more than three times that much money will be needed during the period, Taylor said the pledges already had made a significant contribution to Afghanistan's elections in September. "The international community has stepped up -- you mentioned the Berlin conference -- as part of the $8.2 billion over three years that you mentioned, the international community has stepped up and come up with about two-thirds of the necessary funding so far for the elections," Taylor said.

Taylor said the U.S. government has been working hard on the three primary elements of its program to ensure long-term stability for Afghanistan. They are helping Karzai disarm the warlords, preparing for the elections, and continuing to discourage poppy cultivation.

Fifteen years ago, Taylor said, the United States abandoned the people of Afghanistan after the Soviets were driven out. He said that proved to be regrettable for Americans as well as Afghans. Now, he said, Washington must show the Afghans, groups like Al-Qaeda, and the world that it will not walk away again.

"Our will needs to be long-term. Our will needs to be there so that not only the Afghan people know that we're going to be there for the long term, but also those enemies of the Afghan people -- they need to know that they can't wait us out. They need to know that we are going to maintain our commitment," Taylor said.