Military Resists Anti-Drug Role; Curbing Afghan Opium Trade Seen as Law-Enforcement Job

Article excerpt

Byline: Rowan Scarborough, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Advocates of a direct combat role for the U.S. military in counternarcotics in Afghanistan have lost their fight inside the Bush administration, according to military sources.

For months, the Pentagon's counterdrug office and government allies have pressed top officers to OK a new role in Afghanistan: hitting opium labs and supply routes that are funding anti-coalition forces, including Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.

But top officers have succeeded in repelling such arguments, saying drug-busting should largely remain a mission for law enforcement and that Afghan authorities should be trained to do the job. The U.S. military is, however, likely to take on a bigger role in assisting Afghan counternarcotics forces, the sources said.

The 18,000 American troops are already hard-pressed in Afghanistan, fighting insurgents along the Pakistani border, said one official.

"The attitude is, this is not a military mission; it's a law-enforcement mission," said the military source knowledgeable about the internal debate. This official said the White House could overrule the generals at some point, perhaps after the Nov. 2 election.

For now, most drug labs will stay off-limits since, in the opinion of military sources, the Afghan army does not yet have the capability to conduct sophisticated operations to find and destroy production sites.

The sources, who asked not to be identified, said that without direct U.S. military interdiction the poppy crop will continue to grow, producing more opium and heroin for the world market, with profits going to warlords, the Taliban and al Qaeda.

The hard-line Islamic Taliban rule, which was ousted by the allies in December 2001, did away with much of the poppy crop. But it also hoarded stashes of existing opium and heroin, driving up the price before being sold to sustain the regime. Since the liberation, farmers have gone back to the poppy plant in record numbers, rejecting government invitations to grow replacement crops, such as saffron. …