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U.S., UN Officials Urge Crackdown On Afghan Drug Lords, Corrupt Officials

An farmer checks poppy fields in Kandahar in April 2009.
An farmer checks poppy fields in Kandahar in April 2009.
From the Pentagon to the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime, there appears to be growing recognition that Afghanistan's counternarcotics strategy is failing.

Military and civilian officials admit they have focused too much on destroying opium fields without offering enough support to Afghan farmers who switch to legal crops.

They say it is time to crack down on the handful of powerful drug lords who have made Afghanistan the source for 90 percent of the world's illegal opium, spreading instability along the way.

In testimony to the U.S. Senate this week, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen said the international community is losing the battle against opium production in Afghanistan. Mullen said foreign forces in Afghanistan need to do more than simply fight Taliban militants who are paid by criminal groups to protect opium crops.

Mullen said it is time to "go after" a handful of powerful drug lords who control trafficking and smuggling networks out of Afghanistan. Ultimately, Mullen said, Afghan farmers need security and support to make the transition to legal alternative crops.

"With respect to the narcotics -- the threat that is there -- it is very clearly funding the insurgency. We know that, and strategically, my view is that it has to be eliminated," Mullen said. "We have had almost no success in the last seven or eight years doing that, including this year's efforts, because we are unable to put viable livelihood in behind any kind of eradication."

William Byrd, a World Bank adviser who has spent years documenting Afghanistan's slide toward becoming a narco-state, told RFE/RL he thinks counternarcotics operations have focused too much on impoverished opium farmers and not enough on the drug lords who control the business -- or corrupt Afghan officials who take bribes to help them.

"The lessons that have been learned from analysis of opium poppy and field work is that basically, this crop thrives in an insecure environment," Byrd said. "The danger with the drug industry is not associated particularly with individual farmers growing the opium. It is with the large amounts of money and the risk of high-level corruption and insecurity that is associated with the drug industry."

Cross-Border Problem

The head of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, also has described opium-poppy eradication in southern Afghanistan as a failure. Costa was quoted by "The Guardian" newspaper as saying that manual eradication efforts in Afghanistan are "incompetent and inefficient."

Costa also said the UNODC wants to see "more efforts to stop the flow of drugs across Afghanistan's borders and the hitting of high-value targets to create a market disruption."

Costa suggested that a crackdown on drug lords and smuggling would create an enormous opium surplus inside Afghanistan -- causing the price to fall so much that it would no longer be worthwhile for farmers to produce the drug.

But that plan could be more difficult to implement than failed eradication efforts. When Costa recently visited a border checkpoint between Iran and the western Afghan province of Herat, a commander there told him drug smugglers are much better armed than Afghan border guards.

Iran has started to build ditches and walls along its side of the border with Afghanistan in a bid to contain smugglers.

But Afghanistan lacks the resources to undertake similar projects -- leaving huge gaps between border controls. Meanwhile, bureaucratic infighting between ministries in Kabul has delayed the start of joint Iranian-Afghan border patrols.

Paul Burton, director of policy at the International Council on Security and Development, said Costa's "interesting" idea to drive down the market price of opium in Afghanistan with a flood of drugs shows how bad the situation has become.

"You need to contextualize any statements of that nature within the failed efforts, really, of the last seven or eight years to make any dent whatsoever on the amount of opium being produced," Burton said. "Current eradication-based operations have been a universal failure. With a real paucity of alternatives out there, organizations such as the UNODC are kind of pushed into a corner, and this is the kind of non-policy that they are being forced to consider."

Deep Rot

Joanna Nathan, a Kabul-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, said the wrong approach has been taken not just on fighting the illegal drug trade -- but even on the way the problem is measured.

"There has been far too much emphasis on cultivation as the measure of success or [failure]," Nathan said. "There has got to be a far greater focus on facilitation and trafficking, but many of those areas and personalities that are currently being sited for getting cultivation down in their particular area may still be involved in the facilitation and trafficking, which is what as a far greater ultimate effect at this stage in Afghanistan."

Nathan suggested that Kabul lacks the political will to crackdown on some 15-20 drug lords because some Afghan officials have business ties to smugglers, insurgent groups, and various militia.

"The corruption from such a massive illegal trade eats away at every level of the state," Nathan said. "This is the great effect on the fledgling Afghan state: You have people embedded -- often at the very heart of [the illegal drug trade] -- that actually are against the spread of the rule of law [because of] their illegal business activities."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has admitted that corruption is rampant in Afghanistan -- even within his own cabinet.

Last summer, former senior U.S. antidrug official Thomas Schweich accused Karzai of protecting drug lords in Afghanistan for political reasons. But the U.S. government has continued to support Karzai despite those allegations -- saying Karzai has shown "through word and deed" that he is working to improve the plight of Afghanistan and its people.

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