Using American troops to strike at Afghanistan's booming opium trade has not been part of the war on terrorism or the U.S. election-year debate. It is time to change both that strategy and that political context.
The White House is near the conclusion of a major policy review on Afghanistan that is likely to expand the role of U.S. forces -- who have focused on hunting down al Qaeda and Taliban remnants -- and commit them to supporting new efforts by President Hamid Karzai to uproot drug lords.
That is not as easy a decision as it may seem. The Pentagon's long-standing reluctance to get deeply involved in counter-narcotics missions abroad has a sound basis. Soldiers do not have the tools and skills to excel at law enforcement or agrarian reform, especially when the political corruption and greed that surround the drug trade make it difficult to tell friend from foe or peasant from profiteer.
This is an acute problem in Afghanistan, where warlords who helped Washington bring down the Taliban and have nominally accepted Karzai as their national leader are also involved in the drug trade, which feeds the heroin habits of Germany, Britain and other European countries while enriching traffickers in Pakistan, Iran and Russia.
But the changing nature of the global battlefield and specific events in Afghanistan require a new approach there. Much more is involved in the decisions that President Bush will soon make than Karzai's needs for more support to establish his authority on the ground -- as important as those needs are.
Bush's decisions will help redefine who the enemy is in the greater Middle East, what tasks Europe and America can realistically share in trying to calm that region, and perhaps the nature of counterinsurgency in the 21st century.
Those are big ideas, worthy of big discussions. Defining the way forward in Afghanistan and in Iraq as part of a regional strategy has to be at least as urgent for the presidential candidates as slamming each other over past votes and mistakes.
The suggested strategy changes that have worked their way up to Bush from the Pentagon and his National Security Council staff are intended to help Karzai extend and solidify his rule nationally if, as expected, he wins the presidential election in early October. U.S. policy changes would start shortly after the Afghan vote.
The CIA has already begun to chart the narcotics involvement of local politicians and militias, especially those who have links to the al Qaeda and Taliban bands operating along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. As insecurity increases in the Afghan countryside, those links seem to be growing.
Moreover, White House and Pentagon hopes have evaporated that the Europeans, through NATO or bilaterally, would take on significant counter-narcotics tasks in Afghanistan.
Britain provided only two rickety helicopters for that mission. Germany invested 29 police officers in training Afghan law enforcement, and other nations did even less. Haggling inside NATO over who would pay for a half-dozen helicopters delayed for months the arrival of badly needed counterinsurgency help.
There has been a broad Western failure to follow up the successful U.S. military campaign of 2001 with a workable reconstruction agenda in Afghanistan. USAID projects have not provided alternative livelihoods for poppy-growing farmers, who reap little of the riches of the drug trade they feed.
The need to broaden the manhunt strategy into one embracing reconstruction has already been adopted by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who has brought American military commanders into the interagency country team he established at the embassy in Kabul.
A memorandum that has been making the rounds as part of the Pentagon's own review goes even further in urging a countrywide counterinsurgency effort. It was written by Robert Andrews, a retired CIA and Defense Department official for the Pentagon's Afghanistan group headed by Martin Hoffmann.
"We have to understand better that low-intensity conflict is high-complexity warfare," Andrews told me when I asked him about the memo. "The narcotics problem has become a major impediment to ridding Afghanistan of warlords, the Taliban and al Qaeda. We can shoot an arrow through the heart of the problem with an integrated counterinsurgency program that hits drug lords and terrorists."
Using American troops to pursue such an amorphous program must always be a last resort. But the risks have grown so large in Afghanistan and the stakes are so huge that a change in strategy must be considered.