KABUL, Afghanistan -- Afghan leaders are considering offering amnesty to drug smugglers who get out of the country's booming narcotics industry and invest their profits in national reconstruction, senior officials said.
The proposed amnesty could blunt a US-sponsored crackdown on traffickers and opium poppy farmers and raises tough ethical questions for a government also seeking reconciliation with followers of the ousted Taliban regime.
Under pressure from the United States and Europe, President Hamid Karzai has declared a "holy war" against the narcotics trade, which has grown rapidly since the Taliban fell more than three years ago after a US-led invasion. Karzai has said it is his top priority during the five-year term he won in landmark September elections.
Karzai's office would not say yesterday whether an amnesty was being discussed, but two senior officials said the debate on the proposal had begun.
Karzai was "considering the issue," said Haneef Atmar, his rural development minister. "He finds it extremely difficult to bring any kind of amnesty for these people. But as a very responsible leader, he is always looking at all policy options."
Atmar, whose ministry will handle some of the foreign money flowing into antidrug programs, said the government would have to discuss the ethical issues with its key foreign backers -- the United States, Britain, and the European Union -- as well as with the Afghan people.
"It's not a government policy yet," he said. "It's a debate that has been opened."
Diplomats in Kabul said an amnesty could weaken a group using its wealth to subvert Afghanistan's democratic rebirth.
The United Nations recently warned that Afghanistan is in danger of becoming a "narco-state." A UN survey estimated that poppy cultivation jumped two-thirds last year and supplied 87 percent of the world's opium, the raw material for heroin. It valued the trade at $2.8 billion, or more than 60 percent of Afghanistan's 2003 gross domestic product.
Officials say that they face a powerful cross-border network of drug producers, smugglers, and corrupt officials and that regional warlords and militant groups, including the Taliban, take a cut of the massive profits.
Afghan and foreign officials are drawing up plans to eradicate crops and train police to smash laboratories and arrest smugglers. The United States has earmarked $780 million for the counternarcotics drive this year.
In interviews during the past week, key officials insisted that offering conditional amnesty to major traffickers would help that drive by allowing the country's fledgling security forces to focus on recalcitrant suppliers and free up more resources to rebuild an economy shattered by a quarter-century of war.
"We would ask them to join the government and use their influence and capital to help eliminate poppies and to support the economy," said Lieutenant General Mohammed Daoud, deputy interior minister for counternarcotics.