KABUL, Afghanistan – President Hamid Karzai (search) vowed Thursday to eliminate Afghanistan's exploding drug economy, calling for international aid to counter a "cancer" he said was graver than any faced by his country in a quarter-century of war.
Karzai was opening a conference on U.S.-sponsored plans to crack down on a trade already supplying most of the world's opium (search) and heroin and which the United Nations says is turning the impoverished country into a "narco-state."
In an impassioned speech two days after his inauguration as Afghanistan's first popularly elected leader, Karzai suggested Taliban (search) militants were funding their stubborn insurgency with drug profits and warned elders and officials from across the country to avert a new disaster.
"Opium cultivation, heroin production is more dangerous than the invasion and the attack of the Soviets on our country, it is more dangerous than the factional fighting in Afghanistan, it is more dangerous than terrorism," Karzai said. "Just as our people fought a holy war against the Soviets, so we will wage jihad against poppies."
Cultivation of opium poppies has skyrocketed since a U.S. bombing campaign drove the Taliban from power three years ago, fueling concern that billions spent on the effort to stabilize and reconstruct the country could prove in vain.
Karzai, armed with a popular mandate from a landmark Oct. 9 presidential election, has said that countering narcotics will be the top priority during his five-year term. Britain and the United States are drafting plans to destroy crops, smash laboratories and arrest top smugglers.
But there is also concern that a heavy-handed approach could backfire, and Karzai has strongly rejected U.S. proposals for a Colombia-style crop dusting campaign to destroy poppy fields. Donors are also supplying millions of dollars to help farmers switch to legal crops.
Karzai is expected to announce the establishment of a new ministry to lead the anti-narcotics drive, but gave no details Thursday of his plans. He focused instead on persuading Afghans that producing drugs was a stain on their nation.
His audience listened politely as he claimed that virtually all profits from drugs ended up in Western banks and in the pockets of the Taliban "enemies" who helped destroy Afghanistan's once-famed vineyards and orchards.
But he drew loud applause and shouts of agreement when he urged Afghans to recover their dignity by ridding the country of a trade that he said could return it to the status of international pariah.
"Let's make a promise today: That whether there will be any support from the international community or not, we will destroy the poppy fields," he said to cheers. "We are facing another problem which is like cancer. With other diseases there is a cure, but treatment of cancer is not easy."