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US Officials Defend Afghan Counter-Narcotics Strategy


Officials testifying before Congress have defended U.S. and Afghan government strategies to fight opium production and the narcotics trade. Lawmakers continue to complain the U.S. military is still not making the fight against narcotics there a priority.

Afghanistan's expanding opium cultivation, fueling the worldwide demand in Europe, Asia and the United States, and supporting terrorist organizations, has been the subject of numerous hearings on Capitol Hill.

Afghanistan surged back to the number one spot in worldwide poppy cultivation, with 40 to 60 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product now coming from opium, according to U.S. State Department statistics.

The chairman of the House International Relations Committee, Congressman Henry Hyde, opened the latest examination of the problem with more criticism of U.S. efforts.

"The U.S. government has been AWOL too long in the fight against illicit drugs in Afghanistan which is part of the same war against the same enemy that is global terrorism," he said.

U.S. officials share concerns of lawmakers that opium threatens the stability of the new democratic government, and as Mr. Hyde puts it, the safety and security of American and other foreign forces fighting terrorist groups.

Coordinator for Afghanistan in the Department of State, Maureen Quinn, acknowledges challenges but says there is an opportunity for progress in 2005.

"The government of Afghanistan is leading the way as President Karzai has challenged his people to end the growing of opium poppy," she said. "The government of the United Kingdom is coordinating international counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan. The United States has committed to make a major effort to ensure that narcotics production and the drug trade do not undercut the new institution of government we are supporting and advancing in Afghanistan."

But Congressman Tom Lantos asserts the U.S. government has been slow to respond to congressional efforts to "sound an alarm" about exploding narcotics production.

"Sadly our protestations have fallen on death ears down at Foggy Bottom {the State Department] and over at the Pentagon," he said. "Now, finally the U.S. government claims to have a counter-narcotics strategy, but I fail to see the commitment and the actions to implement it."

Since July 2004, the Defense Department says, U.S. forces have encountered opium and other drugs on 19 occasions, either destroying or transferring them to Afghan authorities, involving several thousand kilograms of hashish, opium or refined heroin and drug-related chemicals.

Mary Beth Long, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics, described one such operation.

"Just two days ago, on Tuesday March 15, U.S. military forces inserted, provided security, and extracted six drug enforcement agents and 36 Afghan narcotics agents into a successful operation targeting three opium labs in Nangahar province one of the primary sources of opium," she noted.

That was the first time lawmakers have heard testimony about an actual operation, and Mary Beth Long told the committee she is aware of growing calls for more aggressive action by the U.S. military.

Michael Braun, of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), says special DEA foreign-deployed agents may begin work at the end of March, supplementing an existing regional effort.

"Operation Containment is a DEA-led multinational cooperative program initiated in 2002 in an effort to place a security belt around Afghanistan that would prevent processing chemicals from entering the country and opium and heroin from leaving," he explained.

But statistics have not done much to satisfy lawmakers. Not a single witness responded in the affirmative when Congressman Dana Rohrabacher bluntly asked if any could say the U.S. counter-drug program has been a success:

"The fact that after all of this time in Afghanistan, the production of heroin and poppies has grown as much as it has frankly is a disgrace… a total disgrace," she added.

Lawmakers also remain very critical of the level of counter-narcotics support from countries such as Britain and others in the counter-narcotics fight.

And although many are strong backers of President Karzai, some are skeptical of his decision not to allow aerial spraying to help eradicate opium poppy. Mr. Karzai has said he wants to focus on what he calls local solutions such as crop alternative programs before taking that step.

Legislation approved this week by the House of Representatives to fund U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan contains more than $1 billion to support counter-narcotics efforts and training of Afghan police.

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