Afghanistan is on its way to becoming a “narco-state” and U.S. and NATO forces in the country should get involved in fighting the drug trade as well as terrorists, according to a U.N. report released Thursday.
“It would be an historical error to abandon Afghanistan to opium, right after we reclaimed it from the Taliban and al-Qaida,” said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
The agency found that this year’s cultivation of opium — the raw material for heroin — was up by nearly two-thirds. Bad weather and disease kept production from setting a new record, although it still accounted for 87 percent of world supply, up from 76 percent in 2003.
The illegal trade is booming despite political progress in the country, including the first presidential election, and local drug-control efforts directed by British military advisers.
‘Main engine of economic growth’
Opium is now the “main engine of economic growth and the strongest bond among previously quarrelsome peoples,” according to the report. It valued the trade at $2.8 billion, or more than 60 percent of Afghanistan’s 2003 gross domestic product.
Calling the problem too big for the weak Afghan government to tackle alone, Costa said U.S.- and NATO-led forces should participate in military operations against drug labs and convoys of traffickers.
As an example of the benefits of such cooperation, he cited two recent raids conducted by the Afghan army but aided by U.S. air cover and British troops on the ground.
“We are not really talking necessarily about even a greater NATO involvement directly in the operation, but a greater assistance to enable the Afghan army progressively so, and the Afghan police to go ahead with this kind of exercise,” Costa said.
NATO offers to work in U.N.-led mission
NATO nations have been reluctant to get their troops directly involved in the drug fight.
But last week in New York, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer urged the United Nations to develop a drug-fighting plan for Afghanistan and said the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan would be willing to discuss working under that umbrella.
International donors also must lend support with measures to alleviate poverty in the countryside and to root out corruption in the Afghan army, police, judiciary and provincial administrations, he said.
International donors also have to lend support with measures to alleviate poverty in the countryside and to root out corruption in the Afghan army, police, judiciary and provincial administrations.
Costa also urged the Afghan government to pursue a “significant eradication campaign,” prosecute major drug trafficking cases and take “measurable actions against corruption in government.”
“The fear that Afghanistan might degenerate into a narco-state is slowly becoming a reality,” he said in the report. “Opium cultivation, which has spread like wildfire throughout the country, could ultimately incinerate everything: democracy, reconstruction and stability.”
NATO has said it recognizes the seriousness of the problem but had no immediate comment on the report.
A double record
The Afghanistan Opium Survey 2004 found cultivation rose 64 percent over 2003, with 323,701 acres dedicated to the poppies that produce opium.
That set a double record, Costa said: “the highest drug cultivation in the country’s history, and the largest in the world.”
The total output of 4,200 tons was only 17 percent higher than last year because bad weather and disease reduced yields by almost 30 percent, the survey found. Still, 2004 production was close to the peak of 4,600 tons in 1999 — a year before the Taliban banned new cultivation.
By contrast, opium production in southeast Asia’s notorious “Golden Triangle” has diminished 75 percent and the region “may soon be declared drug free,” he said.
Most heroin from Afghanistan ends up on the streets of Europe.
British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell, whose country is leading the counternarcotics effort in Afghanistan, said there was an international commitment to support the Afghan government fight the problem.
“The challenge is substantial and complex, but we and the Afghans are in this for the long haul,” he said in a statement.