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US Officials Frustrated with Counternarcotics Strategies in Afghanistan

Expressing frustration with efforts to eradicate opium cultivation in Afghanistan, U.S. officials are re-working counter-narcotics strategies in the country. The United States, working with key allies, plans new steps it is hoped will overcome obstacles to opium eradication in Afghanistan's remote provinces.

Last year, Afghanistan had a record 206,700 hectares under opium cultivation, a record high that produced the potential for nearly 5,000 metric tons of opium, a majority of the world's supply of illicit opium.

For many members of Congress who, since the fall of the Taleban regime, have approved hundreds of millions of dollars for counter-narcotics programs, this means something needs to change.

That is what officials from the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development detailed in an appearance Tuesday before the House Foreign Operations Subcommittee.

Nancy Powell, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics Control, says the frustrating results and what she calls major challenges have triggered a review of strategies. "Even though our programs to assist the government of Afghanistan in combating the drug trade are working reasonably well in their initial stages, we have encountered major challenges, notably with regard to helping the Afghan authorities in destroying poppy fields when self-restraint is not sufficient to curb production," she said.

The problem lies principally at the Afghan provincial level where Assistant Secretary Powell says hard and valuable lessons have been learned.

Under plans being discussed, counter-narcotics teams would be sent to key poppy-growing areas to monitor cultivation, compliance, coordinate public information campaigns, deal with alternative crop programs and when needed, request eradication.

Part of the plan involves a new Air Mobile Rapid Reaction Eradication Force to be deployed if local authorities are failing to follow through with opium eradication objectives.

With a successful election, formation of a central government, expansion of political and human rights, and ongoing training of an army and police, U.S. officials remain optimistic about Afghanistan's prospects.

However, lawmakers are concerned about an upsurge in violence in which more than 30 U.S. soldiers have died since March, and want more done to fight opium cultivation that could be financing terrorist activity.

Congressman Jerry Lewis, Republican chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, raised questions about the determination of the Afghan government to bring regional leaders under control. "I really wonder from what I have heard just today whether there really are plans in place to dramatically reduce on a committed basis, while we commit ourselves to improving their roads, etc. I mean it's not acceptable that we end up supporting more poppies," he said.

Joining Congressman Lewis was another Republican, Congressman Don Sherwood. "I hope you can convince me differently, but I am afraid our drug policy in Afghanistan has been an utter, abject, total failure," he said.

President Hamid Karzai has so far resisted suggestions for aerial spraying of opium fields.

In her testimony, Assistant Secretary Powell identified the lack of provincial-level support for eradication as the major roadblock in 2004.

Impatience was evident in this exchange between Congresswoman Nita Lowey and Jim Kunder, Assistant Administrator for Asia of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who says there may be no quick fix for the opium problem:

Lowey: "Is it correct that it would take decades to do the job and we have to be prepared?"

Kunder: "Given the level of devastation in Afghanistan, I don't think it is unreasonable to expect that we're going to have to sustain the kind of effort we have made as a country out to that level."

The plan communicated to Congress in Tuesday's hearing, would involve special eradication teams in six key opium-growing provinces, with a seventh province possibly being handled by Britain, and the planned rapid reaction force deployed in other places.