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US steps up war on Afghan opium
date: 26-March-2005
editorial comment editorial comment
Must be missing their old Taliban friends.....

The Pentagon, frustrated by the failure of the British-led battle against opium production in Afghanistan, plans to quadruple the spending on its anti-narcotics campaign, and deploy its troops in a full-scale war on the country's drug lords.
"We are seeking to expand our role," a Pentagon spokesman told the Guardian yesterday. "We are going to try to do more."

It believes the drugs trade is a grave threat to US strategic objectives in Afghanistan, and to the government of Hamid Karzai.

The product of rising alarm at the prospect of a bumper opium crop this year, the plans envisage a greatly expanded role for the 17,000 US service personnel in Afghanistan in blocking the cultivation of and trade in opium.

The Pentagon has asked for $257m (£137.5m) emergency funding to step up the war on drugs, four times the amount it sought last year.

The New York Times reported that the US would use military helicopters and cargo planes to transport agents, and would help to plan missions and identify targets.

American troops would provide support to US and Afghan narcotics agents if they were attacked, a senior Pentagon official said.

"We know the military is not the best tool for fighting drugs," the official added. "But this is not about burning crops or destroying labs. Eventually it is about finding a better option for Afghans who have to feed their families."

Until now there have been restrictions on using US forces against the drugs trade, and troops were barred from destroying opium crops or labs unless they stumbled across them in their hunt for al-Qaida or Taliban suspects.

The new plan will almost certainly eclipse British efforts to maintain a leading role in the campaign against narcotics. Last month the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, announced that British aid to Afghanistan's counter-narcotics programme would be doubled to $100m.

But a Foreign Office spokeswoman welcomed an expanded US role yesterday.

"We work closely with the US and all our allies on countering the narcotics trade in Afghanistan, and we welcome any plans to increase efforts to deal with the drugs problem in that country," she said.

The move follows months of campaigning by the Pentagon and some members of Congress for more aggressive action against Afghanistan's drug trade. Members of Congress have repeatedly warned of the threat to the government and the link between traffickers and insurgents.

Britain assumed the lead role after the fall of the Taliban, when the allies carved up responsibilities for reconstruction. But the drugs trade has expanded, and last year Afghanistan was responsible for 87% of the world's heroin and opium.

Earlier this month the UN drug control board said that Afghanistan was on track to produce its biggest crop of opium since the fall of the Taliban: 4,200 tonnes.

In its annual report the International Narcotics Control Board said that the British-led efforts to persuade farmers to switch to other crops had failed, and that poppy cultivation had spread to all 28 districts of Afghanistan.

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