War on Terror Is Also a War on Drug Traffic

Article excerpt

Amid growing evidence that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are profiting from narcotics, the US military plans to more aggressively help track and target Afghanistan's vast drug business, focusing on high-level traffickers linked to terrorists as well as production labs uncovered during military operations.

The stepped-up military efforts come as US officials warn that Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Hizb-i Islami militants are financing terrorist attacks with profits reaped from Afghanistan's estimated $2 billion annual drug trade. As the world's biggest opium supplier, Afghanistan saw production spread rampantly across the country last year, doubling to 2,865 metric tons.

Tackling "narcoterrorism" in Afghanistan is urgent to prevent nascent links between drug-trafficking and terrorist groups from "tightening and hardening," as they have in countries such as Colombia, says Robert Charles, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.

In one operation Jan. 2, for example, an American A-10 jet destroyed an illegal drug lab with 1.5 tons of opium as well as chemicals and production equipment. The strike took place 90 kilometers north of Kunduz after British forces called for US close air support in a firefight.

"There are specific instructions for US central command and for the joint task force [in Afghanistan] ... to deal with labs and narcotics that are found on the battlefield or that are picked up incident to military operations," said Thomas O'Connell, assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. "The labs will not go unnoticed," he told a House committee last week.

Pentagon officials acknowledge that counternarcotics has not been a high enough priority for US forces in Afghanistan, but stress that now, "that's changing," as one senior official says. Still, they emphasize that US military efforts will be aimed at supporting Britain, the lead coalition nation in charge of counter-narcotics, and the Afghan government, which seeks to slash opium cultivation by 70 percent by 2008.

Coordination with Afghan officials is vital because of the difficulty of targeting the linkages between disparate illegal drug networks, fragmented extremist groups, and local leaders, Pentagon officials say.

"We know that some traffickers provide logistical assistance to extremists - especially to the remnants of the Taliban - and that some extremist groups are raising money by taxing poppy production and profiting from the processing and sale of narcotics," Mr. O'Connell said. But, he added, "when you talk about certain labs or certain narco-terrorist targets, it's not always easy to anticipate what the consequences will be of taking a certain action."

Meanwhile, targeting Afghanistan's drug labs is complicated because the labs are downsizing and production often jumps between facilities. …