KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — There are no immediate plans for U.S. military forces to launch counternarcotics operations to try to stem the growing tide of opium production in Afghanistan, according to the top field commander in the country.

“At this point in time, U.S. troops will not be involved in counterdrug or counternarcotic operations at all,” said Maj. Gen. Eric T. Olson, the commander of Combined Joint Task Force 76, during a new conference Friday in Kandahar.

Olson’s assertion comes on the heels of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld’s announcement last week that countering the drug problem in Afghanistan will now become U.S. priority.

“The danger a large drug trade poses in this country is too serious to ignore,” Rumsfeld said, according to transcripts of the press conference in Kabul on Wednesday.

Speaking to reporters en route to Afghanistan, Rumsfeld said, “plans are being fashioned now” to address the problem but skirted the issue of whether U.S. troops would be involved.

“I don’t want to get into whose troops could do what,” Rumsfeld stated in the transcript. “We’ve got a lot we’re doing with respect to the terrorist networks. It requires an overall master plan and that is what’s being developed.”

Vast poppy fields cultivated in nearly all of Afghanistan’s provinces account for 90 percent of the heroin sold in Europe, according to the United Nations.

“In many provinces there also are opium markets, under effective protection of regional strongmen, where opium is traded freely to the highest bidder and is subject to taxation by those strongmen,” according to a March State Department report. “An increasingly large portion of Afghanistan’s raw opium crop is processed into heroin and morphine base by drug labs inside Afghanistan, reducing its bulk by a factor of 10 to 1, and thereby facilitating its movement to markets in Europe and Asia,” according to the report.

Exactly how officials hope to tackle the problem remains to be seen, but Olson said going directly after poppy production was unlikely.

“He did say that the drug issue is a priority,” Olson said of Rumsfeld’s marching orders. “But poppy eradication may not be the best way to do that.”

There may be better ways to interdict the drug business in Afghanistan.

With poppy fields offering Afghanistan’s impoverished farmers their only real cash crop, Olson said alternatives must be found.

“Right now the drug trade, sadly, has become the livelihood of some of the Afghan population. Part of the elimination of that particular evil,” said Olson, “must be providing some replacement. … There has to be the substitution that will allow Afghans to make a decent living.”

The governor of Afghanistan’s Kandahar province, speaking alongside Olson, insisted drug money was fueling Taliban and al-Qaida networks.

“I believe one of the most important factors in prolonging the life of terrorism, not only in Afghanistan, but in the region and internationally, is the drug issue,” said Yousaf Pashtun. “It is very closely related. We are 100 percent sure that some of the top terrorists are directly involved in drug trade. This is becoming more and more the bloodline for terrorists.”

Pashtun called for international assistance in helping stem that flow.

“The sooner the better. The later we move on it, the more price we will have to pay.”

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