More Collateral Damage in The Terrorism War

A handful of critics have repeatedly warned that President Bush's anti-terrorism war against Afghanistan will do irreparable collateral damage. It will transform terrorist wanted man Osama bin Laden and the Taliban into protean heroes among Islamic fundamentalists, swell the ranks of potential terror bombers and put even more Americans at grave personal risk. So far it's been a false fear. Bush has bagged near unanimous support from moderate Arab governments, and the silence of Palestinian leaders, for his surgical air war.

Now there's a new danger. It's not from terrorist explosions, but a drug explosion in American cities, particularly the inner cities. That danger soared with a report that Bush's Afghan allies, the Northern Alliance, which aims to topple the Taliban, is knee-deep in the dope trade. Mohammad Amirkhizi, a senior U.N. policy advisor on drug control, revealed that nearly all the opium in the country, which is the raw material of heroin and other illegal drugs, is now grown in the areas controlled by the Alliance. Though U.S. officials hotly dispute the Taliban's claim that a ban it issued last year on opium growth is legit, U.N. officials say it has been effective, and opium growth and sales have plunged. Before the ban, Afghanistan produced about 75 percent of the world's heroin. According to U.N. officials, last year it produced 4,000 tons of opium, a world record. Alliance leaders give no assurance that they will do anything to stop the growth and sale of opium. Though they still control only 10 percent of the country, if they succeed in ousting the Taliban, opium growth and sales will instantly soar. Dope would provide the quick and dirty cash needed to rebuild the destitute, war-shambled country.

Even if the Alliance made a token effort to staunch the dope trade, it would mean little. U.N. drug control head, Pino Arlacchi, claims that much of Afghanistan's drug trafficking is already controlled by criminal groups who operate far outside the law and government control. Though U.S. officials have as yet found no direct connect between bin Laden and dope traffickers, there's the added fear that remnants of his group could develop links with drug traffickers in a bid to grab fast cash to finance arms and more terrorist attacks.

Also, a flood of Afghan dope would almost certainly force growers in Latin America, who still provide the majority of dope to America's streets, to hike their growth and sale of opium to stay competitive with Afghan dope traffickers. U.S. policy makers shudder at the prospect. "The Afghan drug trade has armed our country," says Indiana Republican Mark Souder, chairman of the Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources, "just as much as drugs from half a world away that reached American streets."

The potential new drug Afghan explosion comes at the worst possible time for drug reformers. They have convinced more Americans than ever that prevention and treatment is the far more effective way to combat drugs than the wasteful, punitive, lock-em-up and toss the key approach of the past. Lawmakers, D.A.s and judges in California, New York and a growing number of other states have caught the drift. They are more willing to relax drug laws and sentence drug offenders to treatment programs than jail.

But a surge in drugs and crime on America's streets could reverse this. If so, it would have an especially disastrous impact on blacks and Latinos. They now make up more than half of the 2 million persons behind bars in America. According to a report from the Coalition for Compassionate Leadership on Drug Policy, a consortium of drug and criminal reform groups, though whites and blacks use drugs at equal rates, blacks are 13 times more likely to be jailed than whites. Blacks and Latinos are also more likely to receive harsher sentences than whites under federal minimum mandatory sentencing laws that punish crack cocaine users more severely than powdered cocaine users.

America's drug warriors could get an even bigger boost with the expected confirmation of Bush's pick for drug czar, John Walters. Walters angered members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and drug reform groups, with his public claim that there are no racial disparities in the drug laws enforcement, and that incarceration is the best way to deal with the drug scourge. The complaints by drug reformers, and the deep reservations of Senate Judiciary Committee members Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy and Maryland Democrat Joseph Biden that Walters is unfit to hold the post will probably not derail his confirmation. With the current rally-round-Bush mood in Congress, Democrats are loath to wage a contentious fight over his confirmation.

Bush and the Western allies will probably succeed in the campaign against bin Ladin and the Taliban. They may even hold the collateral damage done to Afghans to a bare minimum. They may have far less success, though, in holding down the collateral damage to Americans from the drugs that could wash our streets.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and columnist. Visit his news and opinion website:

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