The easy availability of heroin and opium produced in Afghanistan has led to an increase in drug abuse among the U.S. military, said retired four-star Gen. Barry McCaffrey, but total numbers are still far below that of the overall American population.
The larger problem, emphasized the general, are the unmistakable signs that opium and heroin money is energizing both al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, and widening the drug trade into the Persian Gulf and Iraq.
Gen. McCaffrey, a professor at West Point, recently visited Afghanistan and Pakistan, a trip conducted with the full support of the Department of Defense and in coordination with Central Command.
The military is "the biggest drug-free institution in American society, period," Gen. McCaffrey told The Washington Times. But, he added: "We've seen the numbers go up in the last two years."
The intelligence community was reluctant to link increased drug production money in Afghanistan to either the terrorist organization or the militant fundamental Muslim organization that supports it, he said. The Washington Times reported last month that defense officials were reluctant to make the link for fear of being forced to take a direct, but unwanted, role in interdiction.
But Gen. McCaffrey insisted there was an obvious link between the money gained from the 482 metric tons of opium that Afghanistan currently produces a year, and the equipment terrorist fighters were acquiring.
"Is there a relationship between $2 billion in this impoverished 14th-century desperate land, and the appearance of brand-new guns and shiny camping gear? Of course there is," he said.
"And we are seeing bunches of opium and heroin appear in the Persian Gulf, headed into Iraq," he added.
Afghanistan is the largest opium producer in the world. It also produces highly addictive opium derivatives -- heroin and morphine -- inside the country, Gen. McCaffrey said on Thursday.
Under NATO, Britain is the lead nation for Afghanistan's drug-eradication program, and is working with the German NATO force to create a national drug court. The DEA has 17 agents helping train counternarcotics forces.
But the general, who spent a week in the region in August, during which time he was briefed by State Department, Defense, Special Forces, FBI and other government officials, said their efforts were not enough.
"It is the biggest narcostate in history, it dominates every other reality in Afghanistan," he said. "We cannot achieve our purposes, unless we not only build roads, clinics and democracy, but also counter this massive criminal threat."
Gen. McCaffrey warned that the availability of heroin would drive up criminal activity, addictions among the Afghan population and the Afghan military, and the U.S. military would become increasingly exposed to the drug.
Asked if there was a problem of drug abuse among U.S. forces, he answered: "We are starting to see some indications, pretty damn modest.
"Given a tiny denominator, there has definitely been a rise" because of the ready availability of the drugs, Gen. McCaffrey said. But, he insisted, the abuse was "minor," and there was no comparison to the situation in Vietnam in 1971, where he said roughly 5 percent of the U.S. forces there were using heroin.