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Interview: Warning Sounded Over 'Vibrant' Drug Trafficking In Afghanistan

An Afghan farmer collects raw opium as he works in a poppy field in the Khogyani district of Nangarhar Province. The cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan is believed to have increased significantly in the past year.
An Afghan farmer collects raw opium as he works in a poppy field in the Khogyani district of Nangarhar Province. The cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan is believed to have increased significantly in the past year.
Ambassador William R. Brownfield, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, has recently returned from a trip to Kabul. He talked to RFE/RL's Golnaz Esfandiari in Washington about U.S. efforts to curb poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Why has the United States been far less successful than the Taliban in eradicating poppy cultivation in Afghanistan? There are now over 200,000 hectares planted with the poppy, compared to 8,000 hectares in 2001.

Ambassador William R. Brownfield: The simple answer is [that] the Taliban was eradicating [back then]. As opposed to now, when they are encouraging the cultivation of opium poppy and the production and sale of heroin -- causing thousands, if not millions of deaths both in Afghanistan and throughout the world.

When they were supporting eradication, they controlled all of the security apparatuses of the state. Now the Taliban is using all of those controls, all of their armed groups, all of their weapons, all of their terror and intimidation in order to discourage eradication. So, logically, it is a much more complicated situation today than the years the Taliban controlled the Afghan government.

RFE/RL: The situation is complicated, but the United States has spent more than $6 billion to fight the drug trade. Yet it seems that it hasn't had much success in its efforts. The cultivation has increased significantly -- by some 40 percent last year.

Brownfield: The United Nations' figure shows an increase of about 33 or 34 percent of cultivation. However, let's look at this a little deeper: It also showed that the total production of heroin was about the same and even had dropped a bit. This means that new cultivation was in regions, arid zones, perhaps almost desert zones where very little opium poppy is actually grown and where it produces very little opium. As a consequence you could be confronting a situation where you could go from 10,000 hectares in a very fertile area to 15,000 hectares in a far less fertile area and I suggest it's a more complicated calculation than simply how many hectares [are there where] you find opium poppy growing.

They also didn't measure how many heroin laboratories were dismantled and taken down, how many tons of heroin were seized in law-enforcement operations, how many millions of dollars were captured as the trafficking organizations attempted to launder their proceeds. This is a much more complicated matter than just saying: "We have looked and we believe there are this many hectares in which opium poppy is growing."

RFE/RL: Jean Luc Lemahieu, the former head of the United Nations Drug and Crimes office in Kabul, warned earlier this year that the drug trade could splinter Afghanistan into a fragmented criminal state, if the Afghan government and other countries do not step up their efforts to tackle the drug issue. Do you agree with him?

Brownfield: I agree that any country in the world that has a large and vibrant illegal drug trafficking criminal organization present in the country is under threat. It is under threat because those organizations have billions of dollars, lots of arms, a willingness to be violent and bloody, and a desire to corrupt and penetrate the government and its institutions. I do not believe Afghanistan is in imminent danger. I do believe that it is in the interest of the government of Afghanistan, the Afghan people, and the entire international community to cooperate in addressing the drug problem in Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: What do you say to those critics who believe the United States and other Western countries have turned a blind eye to the drug trade in Afghanistan in order to ensure the survival of the government of Hamid Karzai?

Brownfield: I say my government -- and I can speak for my government -- has been engaged in energetic and aggressive counternarcotic activities in Afghanistan for almost ten years, that our efforts have been to attack the drug trafficking organizations, to support and help those who are victims of narcotics trafficking, and provide alternatives to those poor farmers who are growing opium poppies. And our objectives and our programs have had nothing to do with who is the head of the government of Afghanistan.

RFE/RL: Can you give us some concrete examples of successful U.S. counternarcotic operations in Afghanistan?

Brownfield: When we began programs more than eight years ago, there were only six provinces in all of Afghanistan that were declared poppy free. There are now, I believe, 16. That is progress.
William R. Brownfield
William R. Brownfield

Last year, in the counternarcotics justice center, [there was] a task force that [combined] investigators, prosecutors, and courts in one location to manage the prosecution of all major drug crimes. Last year, more than 700 individuals were successfully prosecuted. The conviction rate was in the high 90s, in fact [there was a] nearly 99 percent successful conviction rate.

And when I was in Kabul just last week, I inaugurated a new detention wing at the justice center that will house up to 308 inmates. Why? Because the justice center was doing so much business, they didn’t have enough space for the accused that were being prosecuted.

Finally, I also participated in a brief event in Kabul with two members of the Afghan national football team. It's an education program, which over the last two years has successfully reached 30,000 students in Afghanistan to provide them education and information on alternatives to drug consumption in Afghanistan. And the basic message the day I was there with the players of the Afghan national team is: "Football players don't use heroin.' It was a simple message; a message that a 10, 12 or 16-year-old can easily understand.