KABUL, Afghanistan – Profits from Afghanistan's thriving poppy fields are increasingly flowing to Taliban fighters, leading U.S. and NATO officials to conclude that the counterinsurgency mission must now include stepped-up anti-drug efforts.
This year's heroin-producing poppy crop will at least match last year's record haul and could exceed it by up to 20 percent, officials say, meaning more money to fuel the Taliban's violent insurgency.
"It's wrong to say that you can do one thing and not the other," Ronald Neumann, who recently stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, said of the link between anti-drug and anti-terrorism efforts. "You have to deal with both at the same time."
Afghanistan accounts for more than 90 percent of the world's heroin supply, and a significant portion of the profits from the $3.1 billion trade is thought to flow to Taliban fighters, who tax and protect poppy farmers and drug runners.
Drug control has not been part of the official mandate of international forces in Afghanistan. But there is a growing push for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, to play a more active role in sharing intelligence and detecting drug convoys and heroin labs, said Daan Everts, NATO's senior civilian official in Afghanistan.
There is "increasing international interest in seeing a more assertive supportive role in ISAF in the counternarcotics strategy implementation," he said before quickly adding that it would not include eradication.
International forces also might provide support for operations targeting senior drug traffickers, Neumann said.
Military commanders who viewed drugs as a minor irritant in 2002, when poppy production was much lower, have reassessed the importance of the vast fields of red and white poppies their soldiers drive past in security convoys, said a Western official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he didn't want to be seen as criticizing the military.
It's too early to say definitively what this year's crop will be. But another Western official with knowledge of the drug trade said it could exceed last year's record 407,000 acres by as much as 20 percent. The official declined to give his name because of the nature of his work.
Gen. Khodaidad, Afghanistan's deputy minister for counter-narcotics, said that estimate is likely accurate. "The problem is a lack of security, a lack of governance, the Taliban, druglords, warlords and corruption," said Khodaidad, who goes by one name. "It's a bad list with very bad results."
Thomas Schweich, a senior State Department official, said he has briefed NATO ambassadors and Gen. Dan McNeill, the top NATO general in Afghanistan, on the need for increased military cooperation on the drug front.
There is a growing recognition that "counternarcotics and counterterrorism are effectively the same thing," said Schweich, the U.S.-based coordinator for counternarcotics and judicial reform in Afghanistan. "I think everybody recognizes that with the Taliban receiving funding from narcotics, much more so than in the past, that there has to be a coordinated effort."
While poppy production is falling in north and central Afghanistan, where security is stronger, that decline is expected to be overwhelmed by a surge in production in the southern province of Helmand, the most violent region.
Helmand is expected to account for more than 50 percent of Afghanistan's poppy crop for the first time, meaning the province by itself would be the world's largest opium-producing region.
"The amount of production in Helmand has undone successes in other parts of the country," Neumann said. "What you see is that where you have a reasonable level of peace and a little bit of government, you can start to make progress against the poppy. Where you are in the middle of the insurgency, it's much harder."
The United States would like to see Afghanistan undertake ground-based spraying of poppy fields with herbicides. The new U.S. ambassador here, William Wood, oversaw U.S.-backed coca field eradication efforts in Colombia as ambassador there.
But some Afghan Cabinet members have expressed reservations about the impact on legitimate crops or livestock. President Hamid Karzai at first agreed to allow spraying last year before changing his mind, according to the Western official familiar with the drug trade.
Khodaidad said the Afghan government may permit ground-based spraying next year and is even considering aerial spraying. Afghan officials have not talked publicly about aerial spraying before, out of fear of public opposition.
"We have left the option open," he said. Any decision to start ground-based or aerial spraying would have to come from Karzai, Western officials say.