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US Says Taleban Attacks Hampering Progress, Opium Eradication


U.S. officials say security problems in Afghanistan, amid escalating attacks by Taleban forces, continue to hamper efforts to rebuild and stabilize the country. The officials testified Tuesday before a congressional panel seeking a progress report on efforts to eradicate opium cultivation in Afghanistan that is fueling the worldwide heroin market.

For several years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, U.S. officials have returned to Capitol Hill to report on the status of U.S. and allied reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.

What lawmakers have heard, for the most part, is a story of progress in the area of national elections and forming a government and national legislature, human rights, training of an army and police force, and road-building.

But the news has not been good when it comes to efforts to slow the growth of opium poppy cultivation, despite support from the U.S. and NATO nations to help the Karzai government build eradication capabilities and encourage crop alternatives.

Frustration was obvious in these comments by Republican Congressman Don Sherwood. "The drug problem in Afghanistan can undo all of the hard work that we have done over the last four years, and the sacrifice," he said.

U.S. officials are troubled by the explosion in opium production, projected at over 6,000 metric tons, constituting 90 percent of the global supply.

Anne Patterson, Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics and Law Enforcement, is most concerned about the situation in southern Helmand province where U.S. officials say the Taleban is encouraging opium growing: "Taleban are protecting drug routes, and protecting traffickers, and they are encouraging farmers to plant opium. Whether they are getting revenue from it, or just encouraging an anti-government statement is not clear, but yes we are seeing increasing links between Taleban and the drug trade," she said.

Even as the U.S. and NATO countries work with the Karzai government on building (opium) eradication teams, and strengthening education and other efforts, officials say the security situation drains money from reconstruction.

Congressman Jim Kolbe, chairman of the House Foreign Operations Committee, had this exchange with Mark Ward, Senior Deputy Administrator for Asia and the Near East of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

KOLBE: "In Iraq we have had to spend a staggering amount [of our USAID budget] on security. What percentage of your budget in Afghanistan are you spending on security?"

WARD: "Twenty to 25 percent. Depending on where in the country. There are parts of the country where it is not that big an issue, particularly in the West, but down in the south it is quite a drain."

John Gastright, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, says narcotics, and a Taleban resurgence in the south are a reminder that more remains to be done.

But he asserts the overall U.S. and allied strategy, combining military support with reconstruction and good governance, is working with eradication making strides in some provinces:

"We have made progress. President Karzai has replaced a number of officials at the most senior levels, including the former governor of Helmand province, Sher Muhammad, who was famously caught with about 10 tons of opium in the basement of the governor's mansion. He is gone. He is [now] up in the [Afghan] Senate, obviously that would be a better place for him to be but he is not in the chain of command," he said.

However, many lawmakers are not persuaded the U.S. military or NATO are doing enough, or that the Afghan government is sufficiently determined by, among other things, approving aerial spraying of opium.

Congresswoman Nita Lowey, a Democrat, says production is outstripping eradication efforts, while security deteriorates and the government appears to demonstrate political will. "If we are to salvage the peace and defeat the Taleban it will require a renewed focus and commitment from the U.S. and other donors to provide the necessary security and resources. But it will also require a sincere and sustained effort from the Karzai government to tackle the entrenched corruption in many of his ministries and to extend the reach of his government to the provinces."

Without aerial spraying , says (Republican) Congressman Mark Kirk, there will be little progress on eradication, while Taleban activity benefits from the opium trade:

KIRK: "Does the opium economy directly support the Taleban and terrorism against the Afghan government and against the NATO mission?"

PATTERSON: "Increasingly we think so. More and more information from sources you are familiar with, is coming in that suggests that is the case."

Tuesday's hearing coincided with a call by a United Nations official, Antonio Maria Costa, for NATO to become more involved in destroying the burgeoning opium trade.

Congressman Henry Hyde, Republican chairman of the House International Relations Committee, welcomed the U.N. official's statement.

Hyde earlier sent a letter to President Bush cautioning that U.S. counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism policies risk creating, what he called, a failed narcotics state in Afghanistan.

The lawmaker has set another hearing on the Afghanistan narcotics problem for next week, saying U.S. policies need to be revisited.

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