Drugs? What Drugs?

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While searching for Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, U.S. special forces in Afghanistan routinely come across something they're not looking for: evidence of a thriving Afghan drug trade. But they're not doing anything about it, antinarcotics experts tell TIME. Several Kabul diplomats familiar with U.S. military operations say that while carrying out searches in eastern and southern Afghanistan — opium-growing areas that are also Taliban strongholds

Antinarcotics experts in Kabul say the U.S. is making a mistake by ignoring the Afghan drug smugglers. Taking action against them would hurt the terrorists, they argue, since both use the same underground pipeline to move cash, guns and fugitives across borders. "I'm positive that the Taliban are heavily involved in drug trafficking," says Wais Yasini, counter-narcotics adviser to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "How else do you account for the source of their money?" This year, after a bumper crop of opium poppies, say U.N. officials, Afghanistan became the world's largest heroin producer, with an estimated $1.2 billion in profits.

The debate over whether to crack down on the drug trade has reached the top levels of the Pentagon. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld doesn't want the already over-stretched 8,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan to become sidetracked from their main goal: to capture and kill terrorists. And chasing drug smugglers could take away allies from the Americans. Diplomats say many of the local commanders the U.S. military relies on for intelligence on al-Qaeda and the Taliban and to provide hired guns are mixed up in the drug business. "Without money from drugs, our friendly warlords can't pay their militias," says a Kabul diplomat. "It's as simple as that."