In today's USA Today:
Afghanistan is at once the world's newest democracy and its largest producer of heroin: This year, the country had a record opium crop. The narcotic feeds 95% of Europe's addiction and generates an estimated $30 billion in revenue. Most comes from street sales outside Afghanistan.
But even the $2.5 billion that stays in Afghanistan amounts to a third of its economy. The money corrupts government officials, who tolerate trafficking, and finances warlords and terror groups like the Taliban who encourage cultivation and elicit protection money from smugglers.
Doug Wankel, a former Drug Enforcement Administration official who is point man for the U.S. counternarcotics initiative at the American Embassy in Kabul, says the opium industry is "financing terrorism. It's financing subversive activities. It's financing warlordism. ... And if it's a threat to the government of Afghanistan, it's a direct threat to the national security interests of the United States."
There is a growing sense of urgency within a U.S. administration eager to avoid any tarnish on what is otherwise a foreign-policy success story. "Amazing, isn't it?" President Bush exclaimed of the Afghan election at an Oct. 9 Iowa campaign stop. "Freedom is beautiful."