Colombia in Kabul; Drug Trade Is Undermining Democracy

Article excerpt

Byline: Mark L. Schneider, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Colombia produces nearly 80 percent of the cocaine consumed in the United States. This year, Afghanistan will produce 80 percent of the heroin consumed within Europe. Without something of a miracle, the drug trade could undermine the nascent international effort to help Afghanistan build a democracy after 23 years of devastating war.

In early November, traveling in Afghanistan, the smell, feel and magnitude of the drug threat evokes Colombia. We are increasingly seeing both government-affiliated militias and armed insurgent groups in Afghanistan become reliant on poppy; just as every guerrilla and paramilitary group in Colombia descended into financial dependence upon the cocaine trade. A security vacuum in the countryside gave illegal military forces free reign at a time when the central government had abandoned rural Colombia and offered little opportunity for economic development.

Similarly, insecurity in rural Afghanistan today is rising as resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda forces carry out hit-and-run terror attacks from bases in Pakistan as well as redoubts in Afghanistan. Poppy production is believed to finance some of the opposition forces operating from within Afghanistan. Some Afghan officials and commanders are also enmeshed in the drug trade. Effective law enforcement is virtually nonexistent. At present, the coalition military forces of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) don't have policing the drug trade in their mandate, and there are only a few token programs aimed at alternative economic development

The U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime estimates that the Afghan annual harvest of opium poppies brings $1.2 billion to the farmers and a near equal amount to everyone else who processes, protects and transports the drug. Opium cultivation and trafficking equals half the country's under-$5 billion GNP. When farm workers earn $12 per day harvesting poppy and $3 to $4 per day harvesting wheat, guess which option they choose? Militia commanders and narcotics entrepreneurs are also not beyond threatening farmers who don't plant poppy.

Without legitimate security forces available in the poppy-growing areas, it is almost impossible for an alternative rural strategy to succeed. It also is hard to imagine the political transition succeeding with drug money available to corrupt the process. Regional factions all have to feel a threat if they continue to invest in drugs. And while the building of an Afghan national army and a professional police force are worthy and essential objectives, effective back-up force for the next several years, at least, will depend on international troops. That international security presence also is essential to the country's political future. It is crucial to the Constitutional Loya Jirga planned for December, and for free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections down the road.

Yet, nearly two years after Bonn, Afghanistan faces more rather than fewer attacks from al Qaeda and Taliban forces operating from across a forbidding mountain border. …