U.S. Hiking Afghan Anti-Drug Push

The U.S. military will take a major role in training Afghanistan's (search) police and will provide intelligence and transport for the country's new anti-drug forces, dramatically expanding American efforts against a booming narcotics trade (search), a top general said.

Afghanistan produced an estimated 87 percent of the world's opium (search) last year, threatening to derail its post-Taliban revival and prompting warnings that it is turning into a "narco-state."

Lt. Gen. David Barno, the outgoing commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that the drug issue had risen on the military's agenda because of the waning strength of Taliban-led militants and the taming of Afghanistan's former warlords.

"The military will play a supporting role but one that's very, very large for Afghanistan," Barno said in an interview at his Kabul headquarters. "The whole police organization will be improved out there across the country."

Under international pressure, President Hamid Karzai has vowed to eliminate the cultivation of opium poppies, which has boomed since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

The U.S. government already has earmarked US$780 million to train Afghan anti-drug forces and help farmers switch to legal crops this year. A group of 23 Afghans graduated from a U.S.-funded course Tuesday to join a team charged with arresting traffickers.

Barno said the U.S. Defense Department was seeking a "tremendous amount" more to fund the military's part in the crackdown and was confident Congress would approve it.

A counter-narcotics intelligence team to pinpoint targets is already up and running and military helicopters and transport planes are available to carry Afghan anti-drug police, he said.

Another chunk of the money would go to building outposts along Afghanistan's porous borders and training and equipping the guards to intercept smugglers.

However, the military has fended off pressure from some U.S. lawmakers to get directly involved in eradicating opium poppy crops, which commanders feared would turn the rural population — especially in the south where Taliban loyalties run deepest — against them.

U.S. forces will instead identify "key targets that can be hit by Afghan interdiction forces to take down labs, take down the bazaars down there, perhaps eventually to take down some of the key figures if the Afghan government makes that decision," Barno said.

Germany will retain "lead nation" status for the police program, which Barno said had been "chaotic." But it will also be overseen by the U.S. military's Office of Military Cooperation, which is training the Afghan National Army, now more than 20,000 strong.

The plans foresee embedding 500 advisers in a police force widely seen as involved in crime and drug trafficking. The adviser work may be contracted out, Barno said. Private security firms Dyncorp and Blackwater already are involved in training Afghan police.

Barno, who is expected to leave Kabul next month after 19 months in charge, said the police project would take time to bring results and that the American force here would stay at 17,000 through parliamentary elections in September.

He also said it was unclear if al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who evaded capture in 2001, was even in the region.

"After the election, we'll be taking a hard look" at U.S. troop numbers here, Barno said.