U.S. narcotics officials have told Congress there are some significant obstacles in the way of efforts to prevent an expansion of opium cultivation and heroin exports from Afghanistan. The officials testified Thursday before a House of Representatives subcommittee, saying there is a clear link between terrorists in Afghanistan and the narcotics trade.
Only about eight percent of cultivable land in Afghanistan is currently used to grow opium, a figure that seems low.
However, officials from the State Department and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) say preventing a sharp rise in cultivation will take a combination of unprecedented cooperation between the United States and European allies, and nothing less than a re-building of Afghanistan's law enforcement and judicial infrastructure.
Robert Charles, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement, says heroin from Afghanistan is the source of a growing "reservoir" of illegal money that supports opponents of the Afghan government and terrorist groups.
Afghan heroin sells on the international narcotics market for 100 times the price farmers get for their opium right out of the field. Mr. Charles described how drug money supports destabilization, not only in Afghanistan but elsewhere in the region.
"The drug money and terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and throughout the region are like chain links, bound tightly by mutually reinforcing motivations and operations," said Mr. Charles. "While there are other links in that chain, it is my conviction based on the information available that these two threats overlap palpably and incontrovertibly in Afghanistan."
Mr. Charles said the task is to prevent the "institutionalization" of heroin cartels so that democracy can flourish.
Karen Tandy, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said opium production in Afghanistan has returned to nearly the same levels that existed during the Taleban regime, and she listed some of the obstacles. "There is yet no developed police force, no prosecutors, no judges, and no prisons," she said. "The Afghan counter-narcotics directorate is in its infancy, which leaves DEA with no viable national or local counterpart drug agency with which we can work."
In addition, she said continuing security threats hamper the ability of drug enforcement teams to operate within the country or to conduct investigations.
Assistant Secretary for Narcotics Robert Charles agreed that there are some big obstacles, but said the situation isn't hopeless.
He said a "targeted process" of apprehending narcotics traffickers, combined with a stepped up DEA presence and a process already underway of building a judicial system and training police, will send this message. "There will be in fairly short order, the ability in a targeted way to send the message that drug trafficking and criminal activity of this kind is not tolerated in a free, democratic and non-corrupt Afghanistan," he said.
Members of Congress, in particular those from major urban centers suffering from narcotics activity and crime, are concerned about the flow of heroin to the United States.
"It's going to take a long time," said Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger (Democrat - Maryland), "and we're going to have to have a lot of patience to deal with the issue of turning these warlords and farmers, and taking that product, whether it is eradication - but then you got to put something else that is in there, and with all the political issues that are there, it's going to be difficult."
Robert Charles said the cooperation of the Afghan government will be crucial, but he sees some reassuring signs. "My recent meeting with President Karzai reaffirmed my conviction that he means business," said Mr. Charles. "He is serious about tackling the heroin threat in his country. This is a leader who is dedicated to breaking the cycle of opium poppy cultivation and narcotics trafficking in his country before local trafficking rings become cartels, and put down tap roots, transforming Afghanistan into what some might call a 'narco-state.'"
The U.S. government estimates that 7-10 percent of heroin on the streets of the United States comes from Afghanistan or other areas in Southwest Asia.