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Published: Wednesday, 3/9/2005

A deadly cash crop

ONE measure of how little control is exercised by the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan is highlighted in a new State Department report on illicit drugs.

The report, sent to Congress last week, says that Afghanistan, the Bush Administration's initial target in the war on terrorism, has been unable to control production of opium poppies and is "on the verge of becoming a narcotics state."

The irony is that opium poppies, the raw material for heroin, had been nearly wiped out by the puritanical Taliban government in a country that served as a terrorist training ground. Then, in November, 2001, the United States invaded to avenge the 9/11 attacks, and Afghan farmers were again free to plant their favorite cash crop.

This slip backwards is bad news for the worldwide war on drugs and on terrorism. Heroin, in strong demand in the United States, as well as elsewhere, exacts a tremendous social cost in terms of crime and punishment.

According to the State Department, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan last year rose to a record 510,767 acres, more than three times the area planted in 2003. The opium made from the flowers totaled 5,456 tons, 17 times more than the amount produced in runner-up Myanmar.

The report attributed the increase to "dangerous security conditions" which "present a substantial obstacle" to poppy eradication efforts.

That's polite language for the reality today in Afghanistan. Troops from the United States and some NATO nations control the capital city, Kabul, and a few other cities, but tribal war lords have regained sway over much of the countryside. The government of Hamid Karzai, elected in October, has limited authority.

With most of the U.S. military occupied in Iraq, Afghanistan has become a comparative backwater in the war on terrorism, although some 17,000 U.S. soldiers remain stationed there and more than 150 American and about 100 coalition troops have been killed.

Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who gained sanctuary in Afghanistan and ran terrorist training camps there, has continually eluded U.S. and Afghan forces in the rugged border area with Pakistan and remains at large. In a rare public mention of bin Laden, President Bush said last week that stopping al-Qaeda is "the greatest challenge of our time."

In the long run, however, nabbing the terrorist icon could be less difficult than convincing poor Afghan farmers to give up their economic addiction to poppies, a very valuable but deadly cash crop.

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