RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Military forces seized a town in southern Afghanistan this month, a town that had been long held by the Taliban. Afghan soldiers went in with the help of British and U.S. troops, and once there they discovered stocks of opium worth $500 million.
To U.S. officials, the incident suggests the way that the Taliban supports itself, through the drug trade. It also suggests the immensity of Afghanistan's opium crop. One man assigned to battle that trade is U.S. Ambassador William Wood. His last posting was to another drug-infested country, Colombia. He spoke about the comparisons with Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP: How did your posting in Colombia before this prepare you for Afghanistan?
Ambassador WILLIAM WOOD (U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan): One of the lessons that I've carried over from Colombia is the threat to governance, the threat to rule of law, the threat to stability that a genuinely ingrained drug problem can produce. In Colombia, it took enormous personal courage as well as very strong institutions to make progress against the drug threat. Here in Afghanistan, after more than 25 years of conflict, the institutions are weaker, the people are more exhausted, which makes the threat even greater.
INSKEEP: Do you also have a problem, which is similar in both places, really, in that you have a lot of poor people, small farmers who make a little bit of money of growing opium in the case Afghanistan who need that income and you have to somehow try to attack the trade without losing their support?
Ambassador WOOD: That's absolutely true. In Afghanistan, according to the U.N. studies, the opium poppy, which accounts for 93 percent of the heroin in the world, is grown in some of the most fertile agricultural land in the country. Small farmers do have alternatives. They could be planting other crops.
But that's not really the issue. The question is whether or not they have the freedom to be able to say to the warlords, no, I don't want to participate in your drug trafficking. Both in Colombia and in Afghanistan, they would not be allowed to say that.
So simply offering an alternative isn't sufficient. The option has to be removed and that is done through interdiction and it is done through eradication.
INSKEEP: When you say eradication, are you in favor of large-scale spraying of crops in Afghanistan to make sure that opium crops are killed?
Ambassador WOOD: I'm in favor of effective eradication. You can do eradication mechanically on the ground or you can do it by air. Each technique has its advantages and disadvantages. The ground-based eradication methods require diversion of large numbers of security forces to protect the eradicators. If you do it from the air, you don't have that problem.
INSKEEP: Well, you're probably familiar with the fact that Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently said that America's effort in Afghanistan is inhibited, that's his word, by a serious difference of view between the United States and its allies, including Afghanistan, because the U.S. is in favor of spraying, and other people, including the Afghans, are not.
Ambassador WOOD: I think the word spraying is getting too much play. We're in favor of a comprehensive counter-drug program, which includes alternative development, which includes interdiction, which includes eradication, and which includes incentives for non-cultivation.
But it is certainly true that the drug trade is feeding the insurgency and the terrorism here.
INSKEEP: Well, let's not deal exclusively on spraying, but I want to clear this up, because you did seem to say you favor effective eradication. Then you went through the options and said as far as you can tell the only practical one perhaps maybe aerial spraying. Doesn't that mean that's something you want to do that the allies do not want to do?
Ambassador WOOD: In purely technical terms, aerial spraying is by far the most efficient method. There's also a political environment. There's also a social environment. There's also a drug environment. And we are going to do the best job we can against drugs using all of the tools that we think are appropriate for the Afghan environment.
INSKEEP: Well, given that the production of opium in Afghanistan has gone up to record highs year after year after year, what do you think is still missing from that formula?
Ambassador WOOD: I don't think we've got the right formula. I think that forcible eradication needs to be employed more widely, whether that's on the ground or in the air, through mechanical means or through spray means. I think that the consensus against drug cultivation in Afghanistan is growing both among the Afghans and among the international community. What has been going on has not worked. Since 2002, production of heroin and opium has tripled in Afghanistan. So we have to find a new solution.
INSKEEP: One other thing I'd like to ask about, Ambassador, the New York Times recent reported that there are three separate assessments of U.S. policy going on within the United States government, U.S. policy towards Afghanistan. What don't you know about what's working and what's not?
Ambassador WOOD: I don't think that any of these assessments are being taken with a mind of a major shift in direction. We think that 2007 was a good year. It was a good year on the battlefield. It was a good year institutionally. The problems of drug cultivation and the problems of terrorism got worse. But in terms of the national strength of Afghanistan, we're feeling pretty good.
INSKEEP: Now, when you say Afghanistan's government is stronger, if President Hamid Karzai gave some controversial order today, would it be followed without question in every province in Afghanistan?
Ambassador WOOD: Yes, I believe it would, at the national level. There are some districts of some provinces, as there are counties and states in the United States, where there might be some political pushback. But I think that President Karzai is in full control of the government.
INSKEEP: Now, wait a minute. When you say there would be a little political pushback like the United States, I mean California has its own stem cell policy. That's different than an Afghan province perhaps openly defying the federal government or doing something entirely different than the national government would want.
Ambassador WOOD: We'd be just like the United States in that there would not be open defiance. There might be political pushback, but the governors in Afghanistan are appointed by the president. They follow his instructions. This is not yet a strong government. There are problems of corruption, as President Karzai himself has said. There are some legacy warlords and others who interfere with institutional government here. President Karzai does make controversial decisions and they are carried out.
INSKEEP: One other comparison strikes me between your last posting in Colombia and Kabul. You have a U.S. embassy that by necessity has to be fortified, and it's very difficult in either place for American officials to travel about freely talk with anybody under any circumstances that they would like. Have you been frustrated at all in feeling that you really know what's going on in Afghanistan?
Ambassador WOOD: I think that we often feel we understand the country we're in more than we really do. Afghanistan is forcefully, determinedly its own country with its own culture and its own background. It is poor even by African standards. Many parts of the country are tribal, and it is a foreign country, and living in an environment where security constraints limit your access, limit your freedom of movement, does make the job harder.
INSKEEP: William Wood is the United States ambassador to Afghanistan. Ambassador, thanks very much.
Ambassador WOOD: Steve, it's a pleasure.
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