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Opium-funded Taliban taking aim at European allies

Thursday, September 4, 2008 Free Headline Alerts

By John Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — The good news is that Afghanistan’s once record opium production has dropped substantially in the past year. Yet the bad news remains that the blue haze of narcotics continues to keep the embattled South Asian land as the world’s number one opium producer, and that the entrenched drug trade is financing the widening Islamic Taliban insurgency.

A UN report highlights a twenty percent drop in opium production from last year’s record harvest. The Afghanistan Opium Survey equally shows a dramatic decrease in acres cultivated by drug farmers. As UN official Antonio Maria Costa stated, “Last year the world got hit by a heroin tsunami almost 700 tons…this year the opium flood waters have started to recede.” Much of this can be credited to drug eradication efforts by the Karzai government, local officials and international efforts.

In 2007 drugs worth $4 billion represented half of Afghanistan’s GDP! The country has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest opium producer followed by Burma.

A report issued by the UN office on Drugs and Crime, (UNODC) states that 18 of the Afghanistan’s 34 provinces are now opium free, up from 13 in 2007. Still as Costa concedes, “There is now a perfect overlap between zones of high risk and regions of high opium cultivation…since drugs are funding the insurgency, and insurgency enables drug cultivation, insurgency and narcotics must be fought together.” This remains a glaring given which many outside observers have missed as terrorism has spiked dramatically. An estimated $100 million from the drug trade has gone into Taliban coffers.

Helmand province remains the nexus of narcotics production. As the UN ‘s Costa says, “If Helmand were a country, it would once again be the world’s largest producer of illicit drugs.” Interestingly Helmand is where most British military forces are based and remains the scene of an increasingly bitter conflict. The survey adds, “This geographical overlap between regions of opium and zones of insurgency shows the inextricable link between drugs and conflict.”

In recent weeks the Taliban have targeted troops from the multinational NATO contingents. Besides 33,000 American troops, mostly Marines, there are an additional 38,000 troops from more than a score of countries including Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Poland. Recently the Taliban attacked a French reconnaissance unit killing 10 paratroops and wounding 21 in a day-long battle.

Here Taliban may have erred; the fallen were from both the 8th Parachute Regiment and the legendary 2nd Foreign Legion Parachute Regiment whose experienced soldiers can be expected to track down, either officially or very unofficially, the terrorists and bring them to a very unpleasant end. Still by chipping away at the forces serving alongside the Americans, Taliban has caused a brewing political problem in many European countries and dampened support for the continuing military deployment. French Defense Minister Herve Morin concedes, “The goal of the insurgents is to cause doubt among the Europeans.”

Clearly the Afghan crisis, rooted in the original Soviet occupation of the country, steeped in tribalism and Islamic fundamentalism, based in the rats nest of the September 11th terrorist attacks on America, and most recently seen in a Taliban revival, remain part of a festering security threat. That should not mean however Washington widening a carte blanche security deployment where larger numbers of troops are sent to Afghanistan.

Now despite the significant security and social improvements in Iraq, American Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama speaks of precipitously pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq, and sending them, not back to the USA, but to Afghanistan! While certain tactical deployments may clearly be in order, the real issue in Afghanistan remains building a strong Afghan army, a functional local police force, and an effective national government. The footprint of larger foreign forces, American or NATO, on Afghan soil may not be the answer, but the excuse for the Afghans to keep on fighting.

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