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Crackdown on Afghanistan's cash crop looms

In war on drugs, authorities seek to uproot poppies

KABUL, Afghanistan -- These have been fat years for Afghanistan's drug lords. Since the Taliban collapsed in November 2001, traffickers, some militia commanders, and provincial officials have reaped rich rewards from the opium and heroin industry, according to government and Western officials.

But in the coming months, Afghan leaders hope to crack down on the illicit industry by deploying a team of judges, prosecutors, and police to target what they fear is a growing community of drug barons.

The ''judicial task force" seeks to rise above the chaos of Afghanistan's corrupt, ineffectual judiciary. While it will initially take on only a small number of cases, the government says it will signal that the days when traffickers can buy or threaten their way out of jail are ending.

''They'd work as a team -- pursue a case from beginning to end," Interior Minister Ali Jalali said of the collaborative effort of the three judges, nine prosecutors, and several investigative police. ''If you make a high-profile arrest and then you can't make a conviction, you make a fool of yourself."

President Bush signaled his continuing concern about the issue Thursday, as he included the country on his list of major drug-producing nations and said its US-backed president, Hamid Karzai, would be unable to solve the problem.

Local and foreign antinarcotics officials said it was unlikely the task force would make any sensitive arrests before the Oct. 9 presidential election. But in a recent interview, a senior Afghan official involved in drug policy said the task force eventually would target prominent offenders. To buttress his assertion, he linked several senior commanders and a handful of provincial governors to the drug trade, on condition that their names not be printed for fear of harming possible investigations.

The United Nations estimated that the Afghan drug trade was worth $2.2 billion last year. The government and its international allies have struggled to confront the rise in cultivation of opium poppies, which spread last year to about 198,000 acres last year and produced nearly 4,000 tons of opium.

Eradication efforts led by the United Kingdom in 2002 and 2003 failed to reduce production, which had hit a low of 185 tons in 2001, when the Taliban banned poppy cultivation.

''Rather than getting better, it's gotten worse. There is a potential for drugs overwhelming the institutions -- a sort of a narco-state," said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Kabul.

In a country where economic options are few and the government is not strong enough to police the provinces, the opium industry is a potent magnet. Local and foreign antidrug officials agree they need to sharpen the disincentives and weaken the rewards.

''People think it's lucrative. They think it's easy. They don't think it's wrong. They don't think it's risky," Khalilzad said in a recent interview. ''So the question is, how do you make it less lucrative? If people think it's easy, how do you make it difficult?"

Estimates of this year's crop are not yet available, but government officials say there are indications that despite continued eradication efforts, as much land was dedicated this year to growing poppies as last year.

Production may be lower because disease affected the amount of opium produced per acre, officials said.

But with the harvest over, signs abound in the Afghan economy that drug dollars are flooding in. In August, the local currency, the afghani, strengthened from about 47 to the US dollar to 41 -- a rise of 13 percent. Construction, which a foreign economic analyst in Kabul said is a classic vehicle for money laundering, has reached fever pitch, with mansions and office blocks springing up all over the capital.

In addition, counternarcotics officials say, a rise in the number of heroin labs and a growing influx of chemical precursors used to make heroin from opium indicate a growing proportion of heroin is being processed inside the country. This signals the growth of criminal networks that counternarcotics officials fear will be difficult to uproot.

''Our concern is not so much that poppy production has risen, but that [the country] is now producing heroin," says Alexandre Schmidt, deputy head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul. ''We have in Afghanistan, as of 2004, developed a huge organized crime network, and there's a risk we won't be able to control it."

Frustrated by the lack of progress and alarmed by the growth of the opium industry, the United States sharply increased counternarcotics funding this year and helped train teams of eradicators. The Pentagon put $73 million into antidrug efforts, compared to nothing in 2003, and the State Department increased funding from $30 million to $50 million.

''The US is very keen to help us now. This is now a cross-cutting issue," said Mirwais Yasini, the Afghan government's top drug official.

A US-trained, centralized poppy eradication force this summer eliminated 2,500 acres in two provinces, according to Yasini. A parallel program led by Britain and involving provincial eradication teams eliminated as much as 22,000 acres, according to Yasini, though Western officials say the figure was much lower.

There are growing signs that the Pentagon, which has been eager to avoid the drug issue and focus on its hunt for terrorists and Islamic insurgents, may become more involved in the fight.

On a visit to Kabul last month, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld singled out drugs as a problem ''too serious to be ignored."

Khalilzad said he expected the US-led coalition to expand its role in Afghanistan's war on drugs. ''They could [be more involved]. There's no question of that," he said. ''I anticipate some broadening, but how much and for what purpose?"

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