Karzai turns to war on drugs and insurgents

BACK TO WORK: There's no time for an election honeymoon as Afghans look to their new president to deal with the scourge of opium and terror attacks


Thu, Dec 09, 2004 - Page 5

Freshly installed Afghan Pres-ident Hamid Karzai was gearing up yesterday to address tribal leaders on the need to eliminate this war-ravaged country's booming drug trade, an aide said.

A smiling Karzai was sworn in on Tuesday as Afghanistan's first popularly elected leader before 600 guests, including US Vice President Dick Cheney, the highest-ranking US official to come here since the fall of the Taliban three years ago.

It "was one of the most historical days for Afghanistan and its people," presidential spokesman Khaleeq Ahmad said yesterday. "But we're working hard on the planning for the counter-narcotics conference. Of course, there's work on the Cabinet as well."

Hundreds of elders were expected to gather in the capital today to discuss crucial appointments to be made in the new government, as well as a US-sponsored crackdown on narcotics.

Afghan and US officials have begun to heed UN warnings that the skyrocketing cultivation of opium poppies is producing drug mafias that could soon take an unshakable grip on the country.

In his inauguration speech, Karzai listed the fight against narcotics second behind the need to bring security to a country still plagued by insurgents, and also warned of a dangerous nexus between terrorism and drug trafficking.

"The relationship between terrorism and narcotics ... [is] a source of continued concern," he said. "A decisive victory over terrorism requires serious and continued cooperation at regional and international levels."

Karzai has yet to formally announce the details of his toughened anti-drug policy, but Western officials working on the plans say it will include stepped-up destruction of opium poppy crops and hund-reds of millions of dollars to help farmers switch to legal alternatives.

Britain and the US are also training Afghan forces to smash labs that process opium into heroin -- Afghanistan is already the world's top supplier -- and to arrest top smugglers for trial in special courts to be established within months.

Karzai is also expected to establish a new ministry to take charge of the effort, though it remains unclear who will be appointed to head it. Aides say he will announce his new Cabinet within a week.

Karzai was selected, with strong US support, as Afghanistan's interim leader after a US bombing campaign drove the Taliban from power for harboring Osama bin Laden, the chief suspect in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

A UN-sponsored peace plan has seen the country adopt a new Constitution and hold the landmark presidential election on Oct. 9 which gave Karzai a landslide victory. Millions of refugees have returned home, and the country and its institutions are rebuilding slowly.