WASHINGTON - The Taliban have built a huge and profitable drug operation in Afghanistan while provincial governors look the other way, the latest grim sign of backsliding in a country that America has spent six years and billions of dollars trying to salvage.
The United States yesterday issued a report concluding that Afghanistan now produces 93 percent of the world's opium poppy. The trend is occurring amid a resurgence of Taliban militants and terrorist violence such as roadside bombs, suicide bombings, and attacks on police.
The problems have worsened rather than diminished under the watch of the US-backed government in Kabul and the relatively small number of American forces stationed in the nation while larger numbers are deployed to Iraq.
More than 6,500 people - mostly insurgents - died in violence in 2007, according to an Associated Press count of figures provided by local and international officials. It was the bloodiest year since the US-led toppling of the Taliban in 2001.
Afghanistan risks becoming a failed state because of deteriorating international support and the growing insurgency, warned a recent independent study cochaired by retired Marine Corps General James Jones and former UN ambassador Thomas Pickering.
Just this week, the top US intelligence official told Congress that President Hamid Karzai's government controls only 30 percent of the country.
The resurgent Taliban control about 10 or 11 percent, while local tribes control the rest, National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell said.
That is the situation despite the $140 billion Congress has appropriated for Afghanistan since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks that were the original reason given for US involvement. Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is still at large, thought to be somewhere in the tribal lands along the border with Pakistan. The US money has gone for military operations, base security, reconstruction, foreign aid, embassy costs, and veterans' healthcare.
Afghanistan's Defense Ministry has rejected McConnell's discouraging assessment, insisting the government controls the vast majority of the country. However, the State Department's account of the drug problem yesterday was in line with McConnell's view.
Afghan farmers grew more poppies for opium in 2007 than ever before, the report said, the second straight year of record production in the nation the United States invaded after the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
Afghanistan is by far the world's largest heroin producing and trafficking country. The drug trade deters progress toward a stable, economically independent democracy, concluded the annual survey of global drug production and trafficking.
The report describes an Afghan twist on the old organized crime protection racket: Drug barons supply the Taliban with money and weapons, and the hard-line militants protect the growing regions and help get the drugs to market.
The drug problem is worst in the parts of the country where the Taliban have made their strongest comeback since being chased into the mountains by US forces.
The drugs are grown with near impunity in the same strip of rugged tribal land along the Pakistan border where the US-backed Afghan president has almost no authority and where American and NATO troops are battling the Taliban in the fiercest sustained fighting the Cold War alliance has seen.
US intelligence believes bin Laden is in that tribal area.
In a visit with President Bush in Washington, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said yesterday that the alliance is committed to Afghanistan "for the long haul."