By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service
April 19, 2007 – The illicit, but lucrative, opium trade is helping to finance Taliban operations while placing a stranglehold on Afghanistan's economy, the commander of U.S. Central Command testified during a Congressional hearing yesterday. In fact, some military analysts credit the recent relative lull in Taliban activity to their participation in the annual opium harvest that's under way now in Afghanistan, Navy Adm. William J. Fallon told House Armed Services Committee members.
"This is opium harvest season, I'm told, and that's probably one of the reasons why the Taliban have been relatively quiet in the last couple of weeks because (intelligence analysts) tell me they're busy out in the fields harvesting their crops," Fallon told committee members.
Opium is a powerful illegal narcotic that's derived from poppy plants cultivated by many Afghan farmers as a cash crop. Heroin is an opium derivative and most of Afghanistan's opium is sold on the European drug market.
Fallon said it is unfortunate that some Afghans are dependent on opium-poppy farming for their livelihoods.
"It's painful to watch this, because the impact of this criminal activity runs throughout the country and I suspect it's one of the reasons life is challenging in Afghanistan, because it appears that at every level, from growers to farmers on up to higher levels, there's some degree of gain from this illicit trade," Fallon said.
As desirable as it would be to remove opium as Afghanistan's mainline cash crop, Fallon pointed out that a viable alternative agricultural crop would have to be identified to replace it.
"I think we have to come up with a realistic alternative," Fallon told committee members. Some have proposed that orchard crops could one day replace opium growing in Afghanistan, he noted.
"What I don't know how viable this is as a realistic, major 'muscle mover' in the (Afghan) economy," Fallon said, noting that he's been told it would be very challenging to get the orchard produce to market, given the rudimentary and poor state of Afghanistan's roads.
In fact, that's why ongoing work to establish a ring of paved roads that connect Afghanistan's major municipalities is such an important project, the admiral said.
"Everybody that I've talked to, from President (Hamid) Karzai on down, tells me (the new road network) is absolutely essential to the economic future" of Afghanistan, Fallon said.
Fallon took over as CENTCOM's chief March 16. Since then, he has traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries that come under his command's purview.
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