ISLAMABAD — This month’s warning by the United Nations’ main drug-monitoring watchdog that Afghanistan is in danger of becoming a narcotics-driven state should hardly come as a surprise.

More than three years since the United States began its “war on terror” as well as its campaign to militarily support a pro-U.S. regime in Kabul, the economy of this war-battered Central Asian country remains in tatters, providing ample opportunity for those in the narcotics business to use their massive profits to buy off individuals in a range of positions.

From Afghan security officials and the police to small-time farmers and daily wage laborers, it’s not difficult to find people who are tempted to join a gang of drug traffickers.

The United Nations’ International Narcotics Control Board estimates Afghanistan’s opium production reached 4,000 tons in 2004, a fivefold jump from 2003. These figures and the fact that large swaths of Afghanistan remain a wreck call into question the nation-building efforts made by Washington after it toppled the Taliban in 2001 and subsequently installed Hamid Karzai as the country’s new president.

Unlike the present regime, the Taliban regime managed to slash the country’s production of opium, from which heroin is produced, while it was in power. It’s not surprising that the Taliban had more success; it was deeply committed to eliminating narcotics production and it wielded authority over the country.

Although Karzai is the elected president of Afghanistan, he is viewed by many as merely the ruler of Kabul since large parts of Afghanistan remain out of his control. The fact that the flow of narcotics is increasing despite the presence of troops from the U.S. and other Western countries reveals the ineffective nature of the Kabul regime and its principal backers.

Karzai cannot reduce drug trafficking unless he also launches a campaign to rebuild the country’s economy and provide jobs for its impoverished people. Clearly, Washington’s failure to follow its military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq with economic rehabilitation is undermining its nation-building efforts.

After the Taliban regime fell, many Afghans returned home to start new lives, hoping for prosperity and stability after more than two decades of conflict. These people may have injected new enthusiasm in the country, but the scale of the reconstruction challenge is so large that anything short of a modern-day equivalent of the Marshall Plan — which America deployed after World War II to rebuild Europe — is bound to fail.

Many drug barons will continue to rely on their illicit trade for the simple reason that their financial gains are far greater than anything they could ever expect to earn in a legitimate occupation. But many in the lower echelons of the narcotics trade — those forced to join due to poverty — would be willing to begin fresh lives in a legitimate line of work if such an opportunity arose.

Kabul and Washington should focus assistance efforts on those who are willing to give up the drug trade. This must be done in tandem with a campaign utilizing force to disrupt the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan.

In addition, combating the flow of narcotics to international markets will be a futile venture unless the demand for narcotics in Western consumers is reduced. Western countries should re-examine their policies in this area.

Countries that avoid tough punishments for drug traffickers must consider the fallout of such a policy choice. The issue of drug trafficking confronts the world today as never before.

Countries that are target destinations for traffickers need to consider the risks of being lax with those involved in an immensely dangerous activity, whose eventual fallout is none other than the decay and destruction of parts of modern-day societies.

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