US Military Opposes Spraying
Afghan Opium Poppies

By Bill Gertz

The U.S. military is opposing Bush administration plans to conduct crop eradication in Afghanistan, where poppy cultivation in the coming weeks will net millions of dollars for Taliban and al Qaeda drug runners, U.S. officials say.
The military officials, including representatives of the U.S. Central Command, have argued in interagency meetings that attacking Afghanistan's poppy fields is a nonmilitary function that should be left to others.
Proponents of the effort, in the White House and State Department, want the Pentagon to send special aircraft to drop herbicide on Afghanistan's poppy fields before the opium-producing plants are harvested in the next four to six weeks.
"This is asymmetrical warfare, and it would be a prudent force-protection measure," said a U.S. official close to the debate.
The money obtained from Afghanistan's poppy harvest will fuel the guerrilla war that is expected to escalate against U.S. and allied forces in the coming months.
The money from the poppies also will bolster anti-U.S. elements in the Pakistani ISI intelligence service, the officials said.
"If this opium is harvested and permitted to go to market, it will re-empower the negative elements in Pakistan's security service and lead to instability in Pakistan," the official said. "And it will fund a new round of international terrorism."
A National Security Council spokesman had no comment, noting that the subject is part of an ongoing internal debate.
Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has rejected the idea of using U.S. military forces for poppy crop eradication, according to a Pentagon official.
"That's not our mission," an official quoted Gen. Franks as saying.
Drug Enforcement Administration chief Asa Hutchinson told Congress on March 12 that the DEA has obtained "multisource information" linking al Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden, to heroin trafficking.
"The very sanctuary previously enjoyed by bin Laden was based on the existence of the Taliban's drug state, whose economy was exceptionally dependent on opium," Mr. Hutchinson said.
Afghanistan produced over 70 percent of the world supply of illicit opium in 2000, and U.S. officials said the current crop is expected to be large.
A DEA intelligence report in September said that Afghanistan produced 74 metric tons of opium from 4,162 acres of poppy fields last year.
The opium produced was significantly less than in 2000, when 3,656 metric tons of opium were produced from 64,510 hectares of land that year.
Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar, who was ousted during U.S. military operations in December, issued a decree in July 2000 banning poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. He ordered the militia to eradicate any poppy fields under Taliban control.
The State Department, which is in charge of nonmilitary policies toward Afghanistan, has been unable to purchase the special aircraft required to spray herbicide on the poppies, the officials said.
One option under consideration is to purchase two Air Tractor aerial spraying aircraft and send them to Afghanistan. The plan called for using a special defoliant designed to kill poppy and coca plants without injuring other plants.
But the State Department was slow to take steps to arrange the aircraft purchase, so the aircraft cannot be procured until August - well after the poppy fields have been harvested and the material turned into opium and heroin.
The DEA intelligence report said "numerous" laboratories are located in Afghanistan and Pakistan and there are "significant" numbers of opium dealers in the Jalalabad and Ghani Khel areas.
The laboratories are known to be located in Afghanistan's northwest border areas of Kunduz and Badakhstan provinces.
Military officials are said to have opposed the crop-spraying plan as being too risky in Afghanistan, where al Qaeda and Taliban fighters still pose a threat.
Most of the drug-producing crops are located in Afghanistan's Helmand, Kandahar, Nangarhar and Lowgar provinces.
Administration officials also are upset that the Central Command did not conduct bombing raids against opium warehouses in Afghanistan during the military campaign that began Oct. 7.
The facilities went unscathed after legal advisers at Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Fla., determined the opium storehouses were not legitimate military targets.
Interim government leader Hamid Karzai has continued the Taliban ban on poppy growing. Mr. Karzai also has sought international support for anti-drug efforts in the country.
Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency reported last week that Afghan farmers have begun cultivating poppy fields. Brig. Gen. Mehdi Abouei, chief of Iran's counter-drug efforts, said on March 18 that poppy cultivation is increasing since the U.S.-led bombing campaign and could result in a crop of up to 2,500 ton of opium this season.

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