The deposed Taliban and on-the-run al-Qaida can still cause problems but don’t pose serious threats anymore in Afghanistan, according to Marine Gen. James L. Jones, commander of NATO’s military arm.

So the country might soon be in shape to take on its next big problem: heroin. Afghanistan is reported to be the world’s largest producer and exporter of opium, which is used to make heroin.

“The problem of narcotics has to be taken on, has to be resolved at some point,” Jones said Thursday at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons, Belgium.

“The question is how, who does it, and when. There is great recognition that this is not a simple problem. It is not a simple case of poppy eradication as a solution.”

Poppy, the plant that produces opium, flourishes in the northeast and southwest of the country. It’s been a cash crop in Afghanistan for only a few decades, but NATO officials don’t want to see the country become another Colombia, the South American nation that is defined by its cocaine production.

Opium grown in Afghanistan generates more than $2 billion per year in illegal revenue, as much as the country’s entire gross domestic product, according to International Security Assistance Forces in Kabul.

The business is operated and/or condoned by territorial “warlords” who hold much of the real power from region to region in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan has a newly elected president, Hamid Karzai, and is trying to schedule parliamentary elections for this spring. The drug problem is Afghanistan’s to fix, Jones said. But NATO wants it done — Europe is a major customer of Afghanistan’s heroin — and seems ready to help fix the problem.

“(Karzai) knows we have to resolve this,” Jones said. “I think that (NATO’s discussion about Afghanistan) is about to turn that corner. We’ll see what comes out.”

The next meetings for alliance ministers are scheduled for February in Nice, France.

Banner day for Bosnia, status quo for Kosovo

On Dec. 2, NATO is scheduled to turn over to the European Union its peacekeeping mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina. It will be the first military action to be supervised by the union.

The new operation will be called Operation Althea. NATO will retain a 150-person headquarters in Sarajevo.

The United States had previously announced it would retain a small number of troops at a forward operating base in Tuzla, mostly for training purposes and to support NATO headquarters there, Jones said.

The new operation won’t look much different, Jones said, except for NATO flags being switched to EU flags.

To the southeast of Bosnia, Kosovo is coming off a relatively peaceful election earlier in October. But the volatile mix of Serbs and Albanians requires NATO forces to stick around.

“The mission there is going to continue for some time into the future,” Jones said.

“If the climate stays stable and we see good progress, perhaps in 2005 we can make some (troop reductions).”

NATO Response Force lauded after Olympics

The NATO Response Force, a mix of special operations troops from member nations, held a test run at this summer’s Olympics in Greece.

The NRF troops were embedded with the Games’ security task force.

Jones said he hoped the NRF troops will continue to train and be fully operational to take on missions by 2006. The NRF was established in 2002.

Speaking of Mediterranean security, Operation Active Endeavor is about to become a little more active. The group, where seven NATO nations work together to patrol the Mediterranean, keeping track of ships and occasionally boarding them, is scheduled to meet in November to refreshen its counterterrorism efforts.

Jones ‘not frustrated’ by NATO’s pace of progress

The time it takes to bring NATO nations on board with U.S.-led military coalitions in Afghanistan and Iraq is not frustrating NATO military leaders.

“I’m more used to the procedures and can be a little more patient than I was,” Jones said. “We’ve got a good plan.

“I think people will be pleasantly surprised. It's not the military asking for the moon. We’re asking for a very reasonable, modest number with which we can make a significant contribution, and we’re hopeful it will be accepted.”

Jones was referring to NATO members being asked to help train Iraqi officers and contribute equipment to the new army. NATO is also hoping that more nations contribute Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan, which are used to establish government rule in the country’s hinterlands.

“We have new energy in Afghanistan,” Jones said. “The Afghan (PRT) plan was proposed in Munich (Germany) in February 2003. In less than a year, we got the mission resourced for Kabul (the capital).

“We’ve done Stage 1 (of the PRT plan) in the north and had successful elections. Now we’re poised to start Stage 2 and hopefully stages 3 and 4 after that. People could say this is slow. To me it is progress.”

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