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Afghan Report: September 12, 2006

September 12, 2006, Volume 5, Number 24
By Amin Tarzi

The UN's drug and crime watchdog's upcoming report presents a bleak picture of the counternarcotics effort in Afghanistan. UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa told President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on September 2 that the numbers are "very alarming." (The report will not be released publicly until October.) But even as the numbers shoot in the wrong direction, there are steps that the Afghan government might take to help reverse the trend without harming Afghanistan's farmers.

President Karzai emerged on September 4 asserting that there is a direct relationship between security and drugs. He blamed three factors for insecurity in Afghanistan: terrorism, foreign support for terrorism, and opium cultivation, which he said also aids terrorists. He warned starkly, "Either we kill poppies, or poppies will kill us."

Reluctance On Two Fronts

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) has expanded its area of responsibility to include southern Afghanistan, but has in general sought to steer clear of the question of narcotics.

Costa appeared to warn against such a hands-off approach in February 2004. He argued at the time that "fighting drug trafficking equals fighting terrorism" (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 12, 2004).

Drawing ISAF attention to counternarcotics has proven a formidable task, made more difficult by the current increase in terrorist activities in ISAF's theaters of operation.

For its part, the Afghan government appears reluctant to conduct an aggressive counternarcotics program that includes the wholesale destruction of poppy fields -- something that would require aerial spraying. Kabul has expressed concerned about the livelihood of farmers, arguing that alternative crops must be introduced to replace the income generated by opium poppies.

The UNODC Prescription

In its report in 2004, the UNODC urged Kabul to pursue four goals. They were: the eradication of opium; the prosecution of major drug-trafficking cases; a crackdown on corrupt officials; and a reinforced counternarcotics structure (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," December 3, 2004).

Judging by the UNODC's numbers, eradication efforts in the past 20 months have been largely unsuccessful. The only major change concerns the fourth goal: the establishment of a Counternarcotics Ministry and a counternarcotics force within the Interior Ministry. The results are not obvious, however, despite numerous conferences and meetings on counternarcotics and sweeping declarations against the opium menace.

While eradication is a necessary component of counternarcotics, it is a costly and dangerous undertaking. It would also require a robust and disciplined police force -- something that Afghanistan lacks -- to enforce. Arguably, eradication must also proceed in conjunction with programs to provide farmers with alternative livelihoods to prevent further blows to already beleaguered Afghans.

In the short term, the UNODC goals of prosecuting trafficking kingpins and curbing corruption are efforts on which the Karzai administration can seriously concentrate. They should include the prosecution of government officials who are involved in any aspect of the drug industry.

Afghan Progress

Costa noted that the international community has tried to lay the foundations for such efforts. In Kabul with President Karzai, Costa touted the training of police and prosecutors, and the construction of courthouses and detention centers. "Now," he said, the "responsibility for using the judicial system to impose rule of law and reestablish confidence" in the central government lies with the government itself. Costa stressed that "significant arrests and convictions will set an example and serve as a deterrent" against such crime.

In general, Afghanistan's judicial system remains in utter disarray. But the Supreme Court that took the bench in August provides hope that the country's judicial system might be guided by a generally moderate and technocratic body with minimal ties to former or current warlords -- some of whom are active in the narcotics industry

President Karzai took another promising step in late August. That's when he tasked Attorney General Abdul Jabbar Sabbit with "cracking down, arresting, and prosecuting the perpetrators of corruption at all government offices." Sabbit's mandate is to "take decisive action in eliminating corruption at all levels -- even," the president vowed, "if its tentacles reach high levels of government."

Not Yet Illegal

The UNODC's Costa has pointed out that the criminalization of drug-related activities -- like harvesting manufacturing, and dealing -- is also the government's responsibility. The suggestion is that any ambiguity in the law will be exploited by growers, sellers, and traffickers to continue their trade.

To enforce such laws, Kabul needs to start by cleaning house itself. In addition to its short-term effect, such an approach could bolster the public perception of the central government at a time when it most needs it. The central government must demonstrate that involvement in narcotics does not pay, regardless of one's rank or social status.

But it is well advised to act, if for no other reason than to win trust among the Afghan public and the international community. One of the implications of the UNODC's harsh assessment is that, unless it is for reasons of conscience, there is currently little to deter Afghans from participating in the drug trade.

UN Numbers

The UNODC estimated that there has been a 59-percent increase in opium cultivation -- from 104,000 to 165,000 hectares. The trend appears to be linked to instability in southern Afghanistan, where loosely affiliated opponents of the central government who might best be described as neo-Taliban -- including drug lords -- have stepped up their disruptive activities.

In the southern Helmand Province, where neo-Taliban have been particularly active, opium cultivation soared 162 percent.

Yield figures are similarly discouraging. Costa said that "a staggering 92 percent of total world supply" of opium will come from this year's Afghan harvest -- some 6,100 tons. That is nearly double the 3,400 tons produced in 2002, the year following the ouster of the fundamentalist Taliban regime (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 12, 2004).

By Ron Synovitz

Much has happened to improve the lives of ordinary Afghans since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001. But efforts to rebuild Afghanistan are being overshadowed by resurgent Taliban violence in the south, a thriving illegal opium trade, warlordism, government corruption, and slow progress on economic development.

RFE/RL analyst Amin Tarzi says that nearly five years after the demise of the Taliban regime, many Afghans still have two main concerns -- security and food for their families.

"September 11, for the vast majority of the Afghans, brought a chance for them to get out from under the yoke of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda," he says. "The presence of foreign forces and foreign investments led by the United States was a hope, but...Afghanistan is no longer a success story as it was in the first two or three years after the Taliban regime fell. There are a lot of successes. But they have been overshadowed by A lack of progress in some major areas -- the issue of narcotics, the issue of the dispensation of justice. And also, justice and security go hand in hand."

In recent weeks, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has touted accomplishments since late 2001, reminding ordinary Afghans how desperate their plight had been five years ago.

During "four years of achievement," he said 4.5 million refugees had returned, children had returned to school, and Afghans have voted in presidential and parliamentary elections. He also stressed creation of a new constitution, and improvements in the economy.

The Afghan president insists that most ordinary Afghans still want the presence of foreign security forces despite "mistakes," a reference to the deaths of civilians in military operations.

"The Afghan people...very much want the presence of the international community because we recognize as a nation that we will not be able to travel this road alone without the international community," Karzai said. "Whether it is the fight against terrorism, or whether it is the defense of Afghanistan against terrorism, or the rebuilding of Afghanistan toward a better, more prosperous future."

The International Community's Approach Must Change

Chris Alexander, the deputy special representative in Afghanistan of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, says the progress made in Afghanistan during the last five years should not be underestimated.

"A huge number of refugees have returned. Roads have been built. A huge number of schools are now open that simply were not open several years ago. And a large part of this country -- most of this country -- is engaged in development and is engaged in reconstruction. But the job is not over."

Alexander also recognizes that resurgent Taliban violence in southern Afghanistan is a threat to economic development.

"The serious challenges of security in southern Afghanistan this year are acute enough, are grave enough, that the approach of the Afghan government [and] the approach of the international community in support of the Afghan government is going to have to be different," he said. "And we are going to have to deliver on our commitments with a rigor and with a diligence that we probably haven't seen up until now, given the scale of violence in southern Afghanistan."

Afghan Army Needs To Replace NATO As Soon As Possible

For NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Afghanistan has become the alliance's primary mission. He says institution building -- the drafting and approval of a new Afghan constitution, the democratic election of a president, the formation of an elected parliament, and the creation of provincial councils -- has given Afghanistan ownership of its own reform process.

But de Hoop Scheffer also worries about the threat posed by resurgent Taliban violence to the goal of bringing prosperity to ordinary Afghans.

"There is still a lot to do on all sides," he says. "There is no security without development. A precondition for development is security. NATO came and will stay to provide and to see that that climate of security and stability is provided. That should be matched by the development side of the coin. That is, of course, the United Nations, the European Union, the Group of Eight, the bilateral international donors -- and also, the Afghan government."

The NATO secretary-general also says the recruitment and training of Afghanistan's government security forces need to be quicker.

"Part of an exit strategy -- which is as important for NATO as it is for the Afghan government -- is, or course, development. It is training of the Afghan National Army. It is the training of the Afghan National Police. They want to take responsibility for their own country as soon as possible. NATO's contribution is a longer-term commitment. There is no way we are going to leave. But the Afghans should be able to take their own country into their own hands as soon as possible."

'The Hand Destroying Afghanistan'

Afghan Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Moqbel has complained recently that political thuggery among rival warlords is hampering development in Afghanistan. He has called for political parties that support some warlords to be disbanded in an attempt to curb warlordism.

Meanwhile, Karzai has expressed concern about the findings of a UN report that documents record opium-poppy cultivation across Afghanistan this year. The report was presented to Karzai on September 2 by Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. A detailed summary of the report will be publicly released on September 12.

Karzai blames Afghanistan's drug barons for the closure of schools in Helmand Province, the killing of mullahs in Kandahar, and a slower-than-hoped pace of development. "There are three hands responsible for the insecurity in Afghanistan...In the end, all three come together as one hand. And that is the hand that is destroying Afghanistan."

"There are three hands responsible for the insecurity in Afghanistan," he says. "The first is terrorism. The second is foreign interference in support of terrorism. And the third is the money that comes from the opium poppy trade. In the end, all three come together as one hand. And that is the hand that is destroying Afghanistan."

Karzai says Kabul's counternarcotics campaign must get stronger every year until the problem is eradicated. He says an important part of the effort will be to remove corrupt officials from government offices and to reform the justice system so that powerful warlords and drug barons are held accountable for crimes.

By Ron Synovitz

Islamabad says a cease-fire deal signed this week with pro-Taliban militants near the border with Afghanistan could end years of unrest in Pakistan's tribal regions. The accord -- signed with militants in North Waziristan -- calls on local tribesmen to expel foreign militants and end cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. In return, Pakistan's military say it will reduce its presence in the tribal areas.

Hundreds of people have been killed in Pakistan's semiautonomous tribal regions over the last two years in fighting between government troops and Islamist militants.

The mountainous tribal region of North Waziristan has become a key front in the global war against terrorism since Pakistan deployed some 80,000 troops along its border with Afghanistan. Islamabad says it has been trying to track down Al-Qaeda fighters and Taliban who use the tribal regions as a base for cross-border attacks into Afghanistan.

A Real Breakthrough?

Now, Islamabad says it has reached a breakthrough cease-fire deal with militants in North Waziristan. It calls for locals to stop sheltering Al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters. The militants also have agreed not to set up a parallel government or attack Pakistani forces who continue the hunt for Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and other foreign terrorists.

In exchange, Pakistan's military will remove checkpoints and some troops from the tribal regions. It also is promising to consult local tribal leaders before carrying out attacks and to pay compensation for damage caused by antiterrorism operations there.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf revealed details about the agreement to Afghan President Hamid Karzai during his visit to Kabul on September 6-7. Karzai says that for Kabul, the most important development is a pledge by Pakistan's militants to stop moving across the border to carry out attacks in Afghanistan.

"His excellency, the president of Pakistan, has given us information about the treaty or agreements they have signed with terrorists or Taliban elements [in North Waziristan]," Karzai said. "The main point was this: that they should not cross into Afghanistan and not conduct armed or military action against the Afghan people."

But Karzai is treating news of the deal with skepticism amid concerns that it could make it easier for Islamist fighters to cross the long and porous border between the two countries.

Karzai Optimistic

"We are waiting to see what develops. If this deal is implemented, very good," he said. "We will be very happy. If not, naturally, we'll have to look at other methods."

The Afghan president is not alone in that skepticism. Most experts and analysts on the region are wondering whether Pakistan's tribal militants can be trusted to stop cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. They also are questioning the timing and motivation of the deal.

Ahmed Rashid is an expert on Pakistan and Afghanistan who wrote the book "Taliban" -- a history of the birth and growth of the Islamist movement. He tells RFE/RL that the cease-fire deal appears to be aimed at addressing Musharraf's domestic political troubles more than bringing an end to terrorism.

"I think this is a political deal, essentially, to save Musharraf [from] the criticism that he is getting from the army," he said. "It's a deal to save his one constituency -- his most important constituency, which is the military. The military has suffered very bad casualties [in the tribal regions]. They've lost a lot of men. There have been desertions. There is a lot of anti-Musharraf feeling because of these [military] actions in the tribal areas. So I think the first reason is to stave off these criticisms from within the military."

Like many experts on the affairs of Pakistan and Afghanistan, Rashid says it appears likely that the cease-fire deal will break down.

"There is no doubt that Pakistan's army has utterly failed to deal with the rise of 'Talibanization' in the tribal areas," Rashid said. "This is the one way out -- to have a truce. To have a cease-fire with them. It is not a resolution. There is no strategy beyond the cease-fire that we can see. What are they going to do after the cease-fire? I mean, are they going to woo all these people back into the mainstream? I don't think that's possible. And the cease-fire, or course, is very tenuous and can break down at any moment with a whole heap of scenarios that could be given to show how it could break down."

Many Skeptical

Rashid concludes that the accord is a "flimsy agreement" because it does not include any guarantees or prescribe any punishments for breaking the truce. He also says there are concerns about who has signed the deal.

"It has been reached between [the government and] a jirga (eds: a council or assembly)," he said. "But the jirga is not led by the traditional tribal leaders. It's led by the militants. So it's not a formal jirga in the traditional sense of the word. Secondly, we don't know [about foreign terrorists.] The foreigners are not there. Not represented. Al-Qaeda, the Uzbeks, the Central Asians, Chechens, etc. So we don't know to what extent they are going to keep to it."

In Washington, the White House has said there are no great concerns about the deal.

But Selig Harrison, the director of the Asia program at the Washington-based Center for International Policy, says the pact highlights a conflict of interest between Pakistan and the United States over the Taliban. Harrison says the agreement suggests it is foolish for the United States to think that Pakistan can be an ally against the Taliban.

U.S. military officials in Afghanistan also have privately expressed concerns about the impact of the deal on their efforts to battle Taliban and Al-Qaeda.

Afghan analyst Wahid Muzhda says the deal is not good for Afghanistan because it creates a security vacuum on Pakistan's border with nobody to implement the terms of the accord. As a result, Muzhda says the deal creates more safe havens for cross-border militants.

Pakistan's ambassador to the United States, Mahmud Ali Durrani, disagrees. Durrani says the accord will reduce the number of places where militants can seek sanctuary in North Waziristan.

A British spy plane crashed in Afghanistan on September 2, killing 14 military personnel in Britain's worst single loss in five years in the country.

Defense Secretary Des Browne described the crash as "a dreadful, tragic accident," adding that "there hasn't been any other involvement in the incident itself." An investigation has been launched.

Browne rejected as a lie claims by Taliban guerrillas that they shot down the plane. A NATO force spokesman, Major Scott Lundy, also said Taliban's claims were "absolutely false."

The crash brings to 36 the number of British forces personnel who have died while serving in Afghanistan since November 2001.

The Nimrod MR2 reconnaissance plane came down near the southern city of Kandahar.

Browne said the morale of British soldiers in Afghanistan was "holding up," though he acknowledged that "the south [of Afghanistan] is a very difficult and dangerous place and our own experience there has suggested that."

He noted that British troops "have made significant progress in the north and west of Afghanistan" and defended the British mission in the country.

"The developed world can't afford to allow Afghanistan to become a training ground for terrorists again," he said. "The whole of the developed world knows that and that's why almost all of the developed world, the whole of the civilized world has troops and others present working with us on this task."

The British form part of a NATO-led international force operating under a United Nations resolution.

Patrick Mercer, the Conservative spokesman on security, said British forces in Afghanistan needed to be better equipped if the campaign was to be successful.

NATO Launches Major New Operation

The crash comes at a time when the Taliban and other insurgent groups have stepped up attacks on Afghan and foreign forces, plunging the country into its bloodiest period since the Taliban were toppled in late 2001.

On September 2, suspected Taliban fighters assassinated a senior Afghan police officer, his three bodyguards and a female relative, leaving only the woman's three-month-old baby alive.

Suspected Taliban also assassinated a district police chief in the neighboring province of Nimroz, killing three of his bodyguards. Three attackers were also killed, police said.

Meanwhile, NATO said a major air and ground offensive by NATO and Afghan forces has inflicted "heavy casualties" on the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. Spokesman Major Scott Lundy said today no combat casualties were suffered on the NATO and Afghan Army side.

Hundreds of NATO and Afghan troops, backed by combat aircraft and helicopter gunships, were involved in Operation Medusa, which was launched on September 2 in Panjwayi District in the province of Kandahar.

Lundy said the operation was the biggest launched by the alliance since it took over command of the region at the end of July from U.S.-led coalition forces.