Editor's note: This article first appeared in the International Herald Tribune on June 21, 2006. It is published here with permission from the newspaper.
In the growing confrontation between the United States and Iran, there is one area which has been overlooked and could provide an area of mutual cooperation: the fight against drugs.
The Afghanistan-Iranian border has become the narco- gateway to much of the world. It is an open door to up to 90 percent of the world's $65-billion opium trade. That is at once a threat to the West, and, until now, an unseized opportunity for real dialogue with Tehran.
Approximately 4,100 metric tons of poppy grown in Afghanistan is refined in factories throughout the country that turn the raw gum into heroin, morphine and opium. Then it is driven across the Iranian border and smuggled to South Asia, Central Asia, Europe and North America.
The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) lists Iran as the world's fastest growing opium addiction state. With 4 million regular users, its society is being crippled. In an interview in The Washington Post last September, the director of the Iranian National Center for Addiction Studies said that 20 percent of the adult population is "somehow involved in drug abuse."
Iran has spent more than $900 million building trenches, drug posts and watch towers on its side of the Afghan border. But not much has been done on the Afghan side.
According to Major Michael Adelberg of the U.S. Army, from the Office of Security Cooperation-Afghanistan, the only physical barriers on the border are 69 mud huts!
Drug smugglers and the Taliban are taking advantage of this nonexistent security. UNODC estimates that gross annual profits to Afghan traffickers now range up to $2.14 billion.
The security forces responsible are the Afghan National Police. Stationed in those mud huts without boots and uniforms, many have not been paid since last summer. Seventy percent are illiterate. With just five weeks of training by U.S. advisors, they are incapable of ground-air coordination. They are, an American adviser told me, "just out there eating rice."
More disturbing, their commanders appear to be involved in the drug trade. Last week, President Hamid Karzai promoted 85 men to the rank of one- and two-star police generals. These positions include provincial police chiefs who are the most powerful government officials in the provinces.
According to an American official in Kabul, at least 13 of these have poor human rights and criminal records. Yet all have been asked to head the police in drug-producing or drug-trading areas.
Many of the border towns are off-limits. In Nimroz, which members of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces call "Mars" (no one goes there, and those who do are shot), cultivation of poppies increased last year more than a thousand-fold. In the neighboring province of Farah, it has increased by almost 350 percent.
The opium produced and transformed into morphine and heroin in western Afghanistan leaves the country via Iran. Because prices are high along the western border, northern Afghan opium is being routed towards markets in the southern Helmand province and elsewhere along the Iranian border for export.
Helmand province has the highest levels of opium poppy cultivation in all of Afghanistan. It is also the most significant province in terms of heroin processing and trafficking.
Without improved security, the drug problem will continue to escalate. Thus the incentives offered to Tehran to halt its nuclear program should include an aggressive antinarcotics campaign along the Iranian-Afghan border - new border posts, fences, watchtowers and trenches.
In addition, the United States must adequately train the Afghan National Police and provide support for it with ISAF or coalition troops; it must provide equipment for the border posts, including vehicles; it must not allow the police to be led by thugs.
The West and Iran do have a common interest, to eradicate the drug trade along the Afghan-Iranian border.Copyright © 2006, The International Herald Tribune: http://www.iht.com/articles/2006/06/20/opinion/edbommer.php
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