As democracy attempts to take root in Afghanistan, the poppy crop is doing so with greater alacrity. Opium cultivation was up a staggering two-thirds in 2004 over the previous year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, with only inclement weather and disease keeping the increase in the actual harvest down to 17 percent.
The Pentagon has been reluctant to have soldiers act as drug cops, but there are signs that Maj. Gen. Eric Olson's statement last summer that "at this point in time, U.S. troops will not be involved in counterdrug or counternarcotics operations" may not be the final word. It has become "absolutely clear," Lt. Gen. Lance Smith told reporters at a December 15 Defense Department briefing, that "everything that we've done in Afghanistan would be for naught if we allowed the narcotraffickers and everybody else to take over. And so it is clear that we have a role to play."
In a December New York Times op-ed piece, then?Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani observed that many Afghan farmers see a drug war as more threatening than the drug trade. Ghani warned against allowing Afghanistan to become another Colombia, where "brutal military campaigns against drug-cultivating communities have devastated local economies, setting off violence, which in turn has led to further repression."
It could be even worse than that. The U.N. values the opium economy at about $2.8 billion, or more than half the gross domestic product from legal activities. If the U.S. shows an intransigent commitment to eliminating the only livelihood of many farmers in Afghanistan, the source of more than 80 percent of the world's opium, it will likely strengthen rather than sunder the link between the narcotics traffic and anti-American terror.