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Afghanistan: President Declares Holy War Against Drugs

Karzai (pictured, center, at inauguration on 7 December) is urging 'jihad' against opium Afghanistan is by far the world's leading producer of opium. Its narcotics economy, based on the farming of opium poppies, accounts for 87 percent of the global opium supply and this year earned an estimated $2.8 billion -- a massive increase over 2003's $500 million. The opium trade, according to the United Nations, accounts for more than 60 percent of the economy of Afghanistan, which is among the world's poorest countries. Eradicating opium, in such a context, might seem impossible. But during a national counternarcotics conference in Kabul this week, Afghanistan's newly inaugurated President Hamid Karzai pledged to do just that, vowing to wage an all-out "holy war" on drugs.

Prague, 10 December 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Karzai, in perhaps his strongest remarks on the topic, urged Afghans to wage "jihad" or holy war against drugs, much as they did against the Soviet Army in the 1980s.

Karzai's passionate speech, two days after his inauguration, came at the opening on 9 December of a national counternarcotics conference in Kabul. More than 500 key figures attended, including tribal leaders, provincial governors, and security officials.

Karzai, Afghanistan's first popularly elected president, called poppy farming a national disgrace.

"God knows how hard it is for me when [international representatives] come to my office and say that Afghans cultivate poppies. I feel terribly ashamed," Karzai said. "It's very difficult for my Afghan pride to listen to it. I cannot tolerate it when they come to my office and say Afghans cultivate poppies. This shame must be removed from our country. Free us from this insult. Let's repeat in one voice, 'We don't want poppy cultivation!' [Crowd repeats] 'We want life, honor and respect. [Crowd repeats]'"

Today, delegates wrapped up the conference by pledging their support for Karzai in a statement that read: "Taking into consideration that cultivation, producing, smuggling, and trafficking of narcotic drugs has endangered Afghanistan's security, we have decided to destroy poppy lands by all possible means across Afghanistan."

Raising The Stakes

Since his formal election this year, Karzai has repeatedly vowed to crack down on poppy farming, calling it a greater threat to Afghanistan than insurgents of the former Taliban regime.
"The president, by declaring a jihad in the war against drugs, wants to show the national and religious importance of the issue. The drug trade in Afghanistan is a real problem that is seriously threatening the health of Afghan and international society."

Dadafar Sepanta is a professor of political Science at Aachen University and currently a guest lecturer at Kabul University. He told RFE/RL that by declaring a jihad, Karzai has raised the stakes in his bid to cleanse the country of drugs.

"The meaning of jihad in this context is a nationwide war [against drugs] with the participation of all people," Sepanta said. "The president, by declaring a jihad in the war against drugs, wants to show the national and religious importance of the issue. The drug trade in Afghanistan is a real problem that is seriously threatening the health of Afghan and international society."

During Karzai's three years in power, Afghan poppy cultivation has increased at an alarming rate. Ironically, the Taliban had virtually eliminated opium production, making it punishable by death.

A survey released in November by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says Afghanistan is in danger of becoming a "narco-state."

Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali addressed the issue at the conference, saying: "If we look at the figures, the situation is very dark. According to the UN survey, this year in Afghanistan 131,000 acres of land was planted with opium. This is an increase of 64 percent compared to last year. From this, almost 4,200 tons of opium can be produced. This is a huge production. This is a shame for Afghanistan."

Professor Sepanta said the drug war can succeed only if the future Afghan government is fully behind Karzai's efforts.

"What is important now is that today Karzai has democratic legitimacy and in these days he is trying to put together an efficient and powerful government," Sepanta said. "And if such a government is formed and will follow the president's plans, then it will be different from the former government, which was formed [out of expediency] following the Bonn conference [held by the UN after the Taliban's fall in 2001]. The efficiency of [the future] government will help the fight against drugs."

News reports said that during the conference, the Interior Ministry announced "seven pillars" on which to base the drug war: alternative livelihoods for farmers; interdiction of drug processing and trafficking; eradication of crops; judicial reform; public information; building institutions; and tackling drug addiction.

Poppy cultivation remains the main source of income for many Afghans. Farmers say that unless the government provides them with financial support and alternative crops, they will continue.

Official Involvement?

As Sepanta noted, many provincial officials and militia groups are reportedly involved in the lucrative the industry.

"People from cities whose youth are possible drug victims are worried about this issue. But villagers in some regions of Afghanistan and also drug barons who have a big influence on the government are not interested in the fight against drugs because farmers, by cultivating poppy in smaller fields, can make more money," Sepanta said.

Experts warn that the drug business is threatening to undermine all efforts to rebuild the war-torn country.

But Afghan officials say they can't succeed without greater international.

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the conference that drug money funds terrorists and extremist groups. He also said the U.S. Congress plans to provide more than $750 million to help the Afghan drug war.

The aid is to be used for alternative work for 125,000 people in key poppy-producing provinces.

(RFE/RL's Afghan service contributed to this report.)
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL focusing on Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.