THE Bush Administration has shifted the mission of the some 18,000 U.S. forces in Afghanistan from exclusive concentration on hunting terrorists to include suppression of opium production. It has taken this action in response to Afghanistan's increasing importance in the drug market.
An estimated 87 percent of the world's illicit opium, the base of heroin, is grown in Afghanistan. Its production constitutes an estimated 37 percent of the country's gross domestic product. President Hamid Karzai has vowed to stamp out production but lacks the means to do so; thus, the new American role.
Americans at home have had no question about the role of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in hunting down al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and other elements involved in the 9/11 attacks. Some 153 Americans have been killed in the effort.
The task is still not complete 3 1/2 years later: neither Osama bin Laden nor Taliban leader Mullah Omar have yet been apprehended and Taliban activities in Afghanistan are on the rise. The question is, should U.S. forces now be used to root up or spray poppy fields, shut down drug laboratories, and otherwise try to interrupt Afghan drug production as well? U.S. casualties are likely to increase with a change in mission.
Many Afghans are in sympathy with the U.S. effort to suppress and catch al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The new mission, however, will have U.S. forces visibly seeking to put the three-eighths of the Afghan economy earning its living from heroin production and trafficking out of business.
That struggle will automatically pit U.S. forces against a new, armed, organized element in the country. The argument the Bush Administration is using to expand the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is that some money from opium production is being used to finance terrorists. That is likely true, but it is also the case that heroin production is at the core of Afghanistan's economy, the largest item in the earnings of the 28 million-strong population of the country.
We think that U.S. forces should be used to hunt terrorists: that is in fact all we signed on for. The fight against terrorism is what Americans agreed that their sons and daughters go to Afghanistan to fight and die for, not for someone's idea of how to deal with the world's drug problem.