The head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime responds to Mitchell Prothero's piece on Afghanistan.

Published September 27, 2005 8:00AM (EDT)

[Read "Afghanistan: Mission Not Yet Accomplished," by Mitchell Prothero.]

Mitchell Prothero's lengthy exploration of the threats facing democracy in Afghanistan offers readers a number of valuable insights. As one of the interviewees for the piece, I can testify that most of the facts ring true. There are two exceptions, however, and I need to correct both errors. First, the author mistakenly identifies me as "Italian diplomat Antonio Maria Costa," when my actual title is executive director, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. As the leader of a counter-narcotics agency, I often find diplomacy a valuable tool. However, there are times when facts take precedence over tact, and certainly, the opinions I expressed to Salon about the need for accountability within the aid community in Afghanistan, and the threat posed by a narco-economy in that country, are plain enough. [Editor's note: Prothero initially identifies Costa as an "Italian diplomat," but immediately afterward gives his official title.]

Yes, a much greater percentage of assistance funds should be filtering down to the farmers who need it for alternative development. Yes, there is a powerful criminal element at work in Afghanistan, drug gangs fighting over turf and trafficking routes. Yes, there is even corruption at work in the government, although that is, as your article and our own information indicate, getting better. There has also been concern within the United Nations, as well as on the part of authorities in the U.S. and the U.K., that warlords with ties to the drug industry are insinuating themselves into the new government, and at UNODC, we have been very vocal on this point -- we have called for the removal and/or resignation of any member of Parliament discovered to be maintaining ties with the drug industry. Two weeks ago, in fact, I made this very point during a briefing to the House Subcommittee on International Relations, chaired by Rep. Henry Hyde. Soon, I will be meeting with members of the House again to talk about facilitating the extradition of major Afghan traffickers to countries with stronger judicial systems for trial. As I told Mitchell Prothero, both the legal system and the judicial infrastructure in Afghanistan are still too weak to do the job adequately. These are facts, and Prothero lays them out in good fashion.

The trouble begins, however, when Prothero begins to move from fact to hearsay: "With rumors -- in some cases backed by arrests -- that many high-ranking officials in the current administration are involved in the drug trade, as well as trafficking by warlords opposed to the Taliban, Costa says there has been a tendency by American and coalition forces involved in the hunt for al-Qaida targets to turn a blind eye to trafficking by allies." The implication here, which surfaces regularly in some circles, is that there is a deliberate policy under way on the part of U.S. and coalition forces to ignore trafficking, or even to condone it, in cases where drug/warlords are actively assisting in the war against terrorism. Indeed, Prothero attributes this specific piece of analysis directly to me. Let me speak bluntly: At no time have I ever suggested that U.S. and coalition forces are subordinating the war on drugs to the war on terror, and the facts, as I know them, do not support that insinuation. While it is true that military efforts have been primarily focused on quelling insurgencies in Afghanistan, there have also been strikes against drug operations, clandestine labs and major traffickers. I have supported strikes of this kind, and support similar operations in the future. At the UNODC, we understand, as does the U.S. Congress and the U.S. military, that, in Afghanistan, the war on terror and the war on drugs must be fought and won simultaneously -- in this part of the world, drugs, poverty and terrorism are inextricably linked. To suggest that American and coalition forces deliberately turn a "blind eye" to trafficking is simply incorrect and a distortion of my views.

Afghanistan faces enormous challenges, but the danger its narco-economy presents to the world, as well as to its own citizens, compels us to continue our support for the present government. The fate of this "fledgling democracy" is tied closely to our own futures.

-- Antonio Maria Costa
Executive Director, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime

By Salon Staff

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