It is a good thing that the oppressive, al-Qaida-friendly Taliban regime no longer lords over Afghanistan, but as far as gauging the progress of postwar security there, the Bush White House seems to be smoking some pretty heavy stuff.
Here's MC Andrews, director of global communications for the Bush administration, on Oct. 15:
"Poppy cultivation is always a temptation in a country as poor as Afghanistan, and as we open up more economic opportunities, incentives to grow poppy should decline ... Although poppy cultivation and opium production continue to be a problem, since October 2003 Afghan Special Narcotics Forces have destroyed 36 labs and seized over 35 tons of opiates. The U.S. will continue to support the counter-narcotics efforts of the Afghan government and the U.K.-led international program by expanding Afghan security services, providing resources the government needs to control its territory, and supporting the Afghan eradication effort aimed at reducing the 2005 opium crop."
And here's the latest United Nations report on poppy cultivation and the Afghan drug trade, released Thursday (as reported by the AP):
"The Afghanistan Opium Survey 2004 found that cultivation rose 64 percent over 2003, with 323,701 acres dedicated to the poppies that produce opium. That set a double record, according to Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, for 'the highest drug cultivation in the country's history, and the largest in the world.'"
"Bad weather and disease kept production from setting a record, although Afghanistan still accounted for 87 percent of the world supply, up from 76 percent in 2003. Opium is the 'main engine of economic growth and the strongest bond among previously quarrelsome peoples,' the report said. It valued the trade at $2.8 billion, or more than 60 percent of Afghanistan's 2003 gross domestic product."
So while the Bush White House points to the recent election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as evidence that freedom is firmly on the march, clearly the drug mules are stampeding. And if the soaring drug trade numbers are any indication, near-term prospects for countrywide security and stability are grim. Consider Colombia, where narcotics trafficking generates a comparable $2.2 to $5 billion annually -- a mere 3 percent of that country's GDP, let alone a whopping two-thirds of it. And even with an established government and much more advanced infrastructure, South America's cocaine capital of the world is hardly a bastion of calm and equitable prosperity.
Says the U.N.'s Costa: "The fear that Afghanistan might degenerate into a narco-state is slowly becoming a reality. Opium cultivation, which has spread like wildfire throughout the country, could ultimately incinerate everything: democracy, reconstruction and stability."