No direct role for U.S. in policing Afghan opium, says Barno
ARLINGTON, Va. — U.S. forces in Afghanistan likely will not play an active and direct law enforcement or combat role in eradicating Afghanistan’s opium production, said Lt. Gen. David Barno, commander of Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan.
“We’re assessing exactly how the military’s role may be reshaped as we go into this coming year, given the significant threat that drugs [pose],” he said during a Tuesday press briefing at the Pentagon. “As we look at our mission in Afghanistan for the coalition military, [of] which the U.S. is a significant part, clearly we have a full plate right now with actions we’re doing around the country in counterterrorism, with working to build Afghan security forces, with assisting in the reconstruction.
“However we also recognize the threat of narcotics … is very significant and threatens our overall strategic objectives,” Barno said. “To speculate a little bit, I think eradication for U.S. troops would be less likely. I think we will play larger roles in assisting in other aspects of the drug fight.”
Once nearly eradicated by the Taliban regime, a U.N. report has stated that Afghanistan’s poppy crop has grown to become the world’s top opium producer after U.S.-led coalition forces attacked the country in 2001 in search of al-Qaida terrorist network leader Osama bin Laden.
Bin Laden continues to elude forces, but Barno said officials do not believe he controls day-to-day operations of the terrorist network, in Afghanistan or anywhere else the world-reaching organization has begun operations.
Barno caught heat from Pentagon leadership when he said in January that he anticipated that bin Laden would be caught by year’s end, and said he’ll be making no more predictions.
“I retired my crystal ball and I don’t make predictions anymore in terms of when we’re potentially going to get any of the figures out there that we pursue every day in Afghanistan.
“But I would also tell you that I don’t see any indications that he is in day-to-day command and control, as it were, of the al-Qaida organization or the other terrorist groups that work with him, certainly in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area,” Barno said.
He credited the recently trained Afghan police and military forces for helping to keep safe the Oct. 9 elections, saying the Afghans seized 60 improvised explosive devices, recovered rocket-propelled grenades, artillery rounds, mines and explosives, and arrested 22 individuals reportedly carrying weapons, munitions and other explosives to the polls.
“The overwhelming success of their efforts, and of the election as a whole, represents a significant defeat for the Taliban and al-Qaida and a significant victory for the millions of Afghans who chose to embark on a great journey to freedom and self-determination,” Barno said. An estimated 8.4 million Afghans voted, he added.
Barno countered criticisms, like those offered by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, that the U.S. military’s focus in Iraq deprived forces needed attention in Afghanistan.
U.S. Central Command provides him the flexibility to add, if necessary, to the nearly 18,000 troops based in Afghanistan. For example, he said, he received a battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division to bolster forces to counter the anticipated violence surrounded the elections.
“I’m comfortable with the number of troops in country,” he said. “I see no need to build up the base now.”