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
"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