Monday, August 4, 2008

Afghan drug profits endanger NATO troops: expert

I find this to be quite interesting since the Taliban had destroyed all the poppy fields. Now if I remember correctly, it was after the US invaded they were replanted. Strange isn't it?

Updated Sun. Aug. 3 2008 2:35 PM ET News Staff

A former U.S. counternarcotics official is calling on Canada and NATO countries to push Afghanistan to eradicate the country's opium poppy production.

Thomas Schweich, who was a top official in the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and had an extensive article published in last weekend's New York Times magazine, told CTV's Question Period the poppy trade is endangering the lives of Canadian troops.

He said the heroin and opium produced from poppies and sold around the world is funding not just corrupt officials but insurgent activities. Schweich claimed the drug trade is funding the weapons that are killing Canadian soldiers.

"If I were in Canada, I would be hopping mad about the lack of ability to crack down on these corrupt people who are involved in this trade and on the farmers who are growing the opium," he said.

"They are clearly financing the people who are attacking your troops, attacking the British troops in Helmand (province) and attacking the Americans throughout, as well."

Eighty-eight Canadian military personnel and one diplomat have died serving in Afghanistan since 2002.

It's estimated Afghanistan supplies 90 per cent of the world's heroin. According to the CIA's "World Factbook" website, the opium trade brings in about US$4 billion into the Afghan economy each year.

Schweich, who went to Afghanistan in 2006, said top officials in the Afghan government and influential citizens are getting rich off the poppy trade. He said he has no evidence President Hamid Karzai is personally involved or profiting, but he said the Afghan president may not be taking effective action for fear of losing political support in key regions of the country.

"His power base is in Helmand and Kandahar (provinces). That's where 70 to 80 per cent of the opium is grown and he does not want to crack down on the people there because he needs their support for re-election," Schweich said.

He said NATO countries should confront Karzai with a united front and say, "'Look, we cannot support your government anymore if you're protecting narco-traffickers."'

"'You (Karzai) need to hit the trade at all levels. You need to eradicate the poppy fields. You need to close down the labs. You need to arrest the corrupt officials who are supporting it, and you need to arrest the people who are transiting these drugs."'

Karzai has traditionally said eradicating will hurt poor farmers.

Schweich said the drug trade in Afghanistan has changed and poor farmers are no longer the primary source of poppies. Instead, he claimed wealthy landowners in Helmand and Kandahar provinces are now the key beneficiaries, although he noted that they are not necessarily supporting insurgents with drug money. He said some of them are merely lining their own pockets and work with the government.

Emerson questions strategy

The U.S. has been pushing Canada to support a poppy eradication program, but Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson questioned the strategy.

He said Sunday on Question Period that he agreed the drug trade is injecting resources into the Afghan insurgency. But Emerson said he doesn't support a strategy that goes after poppy farmers directly.

"We all agree with the fundamental need to deal with the problem," he said. "I know that Canada is prepared to set up and be part of the solution. Does it necessarily mean going out and burning crops or whatever the latest technique is? I'm not sure about that."

Emerson said a better strategy may be to break the chain funnelling money to the Taliban and other insurgent fighters "downstream."

"It may well be better to focus on interdiction, to break down the downstream supply chain that creates the value as opposed to alienating the farmers whose support you ultimately need as you build democracy in Afghanistan."

Emerson also restated Canada's support for Karzai.

"There are authors (and) there are speculators out there who will say all kinds of things about Karzai, about the various players in Afghanistan. Frankly, President Karzai is the president (and) he was elected. We support him. We want to see elections," he said.