Worried about a vast and still growing heroin industry in Afghanistan, the Bush administration has devised a more aggressive counternarcotics strategy aimed at greater eradication of poppy fields, promotion of alternative crops and prosecution of traffickers.
The plan, a mix of stronger carrots and sticks, attempts to bring more coordination, more money and more muscle to Afghan and international programs launched over the past three years that have not made much of a dent in the lucrative drug business.
The intensified campaign stops short of using U.S. troops to target opium labs and attack drug kingpins. Instead, at the Pentagon's insistence, U.S. forces will be limited to supporting Afghan law enforcement efforts by providing airlift and intelligence leads to Afghan police and by helping tighten security along Afghanistan's borders, administration officials said.
The new approach emerged from a high-level administration review this summer of U.S. operations in Afghanistan. The review acknowledged the gravity of the drug problem and the ineffectiveness of past measures to confront it, according to several officials who participated.
President Bush is scheduled to be briefed this week on the revised U.S. strategy, which his principal national security advisers approved in outline form in mid-September. To fund it, officials expect to notify Congress soon of plans to shift more than $700 million from other programs into Afghan counternarcotics activities in 2005. That compares with about $123 million spent by the Pentagon and State Department in 2004.
"The issue in Afghanistan, I think from my viewpoint, is the drug issue. . . . That's the next big challenge in Afghanistan," Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a meeting of the Institute of Land Warfare earlier this month.
In an impoverished country with an average per capita income of less than $200 a year, the cash lure of the poppy plant is hard to resist. Afghanistan ranks as the world's largest producer of heroin, with more than 450 square miles of poppies under cultivation -- an area about the size of Los Angeles.
The country's earnings from the opium trade, estimated last year to exceed $2.3 billion, amount to more than half of Afghanistan's legal gross domestic product. Assessments of this year's crop by the CIA and the United Nations are due soon and will show a jump to record levels, officials said.
Most of the opium produced by Afghanistan goes to Europe, not the United States, feeding 95 percent of Europe's heroin demand. But the drug business has become a critical strategic concern for U.S. authorities because it helps finance the activities of insurgents and regional warlords. U.S. and Afghan officials now frequently cite the danger of Afghanistan becoming a "narco state," with drug-related corruption threatening to undermine the country's fledging democratic institutions.
Given the scope and urgency of the problem, some in the administration, in Congress and elsewhere have argued for direct U.S. military action against traffickers. They say Afghan forces are not yet large or strong enough to manage enforcement actions alone or ensure security for aerial spraying and other eradication efforts.
"Short-term, in order to eradicate the poppy and eliminate the income for those shooting at American soldiers, the U.S. military is going to have to provide protection to those doing eradication," said Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), who chairs a Government Reform subcommittee on drug policy. "There is no other option."
But U.S. commanders and senior Pentagon civilians contend that battling the drug trade is primarily a law enforcement problem, not a military one, and must be led by homegrown Afghan forces. Enmeshing U.S. troops in drug fights, they say, would alienate many Afghans -- some of whom have become useful intelligence sources -- and also divert attention from the core U.S. military missions of combating insurgents and aiding reconstruction.
"The last thing we want to do is have U.S. forces running around the countryside doing this sort of thing," said Col. David Lamm, chief of staff for the U.S. military command in Afghanistan. "That would change our relationship with the Afghan people, which right now is very positive."
Pentagon guidance allows U.S. troops in Afghanistan to destroy drugs they come across in the course of combat operations against al Qaeda and Taliban fighters. But senior defense officials resisted a proposal earlier this year that would have designated counternarcotics a core military mission in Afghanistan.