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Taliban Collapse May Help Heroin Trade

The collapse of the Taliban could be good news for Central Asia's heroin trade. After over a year of being forced to stop growing opium by the Taliban, many Afghan farmers have once again seeded their fields with poppy.'s David Kohn reports.

"The absence of any coercion, the total absence of any order at all, is propitious for poppy farmers," says Bernard Frahi, who directs the United Nations' anti-drug effort in Afghanistan. According to Frahi, who is based in Islamabad, many farmers in southern Afghanistan have already planted poppy. "We are worried that it will go back to earlier levels."

For Afghan farmers, the return to raising opium is understandable; poppy is about 30 times more profitable than other crops such as wheat.

"The farmers have to survive," says another U.N. anti-drug official. "If you and I were in their position, we would do the same. The alternative is to starve." Most experts say that behind smuggling, opium is probably Afghanistan's second-leading industry, generating several hundred million dollars a year.

Until last year, Afghanistan produced almost three-quarters of the world's heroin. But in July 2000, the Taliban outlawed poppy cultivation. No one outside the regime knows exactly what motivated the ban. The Taliban, who embrace an extremely strict vision of Islam, said they were simply following the strictures of the Koran.

Many observers, however, suspected other motives: some said the regime was trying to curry favor with the international community, or perhaps trying to drive up the price of opium, in hopes of making larger profits on its own stockpiles. Others argued that a severe drought had more to do with the decrease than the ban, and pointed out that the Taliban continued to allow the processing and distribution of opium.

But to the amazement of most outside observers, the Taliban made the ban stick, using their brutal reputation to scare farmers into complying. In one year, the opium harvest fell 98 percent, from more than 4000 tons in 2000 to 80 tons this year. The number of acres under cultivation dropped from more than 200,000 to less than 20,000.

Even suspicious U.S. officials were impressed. Using satellite spy photos, they established that poppy cultivation had in fact plummeted. "This was something unprecedented in the world's history," says a State Department analyst who tracks the Afghan drug trade.

Now, with the Taliban on the cusp of defeat, and much of the country seemingly on the verge of chaos, the drug trade may once again flourish. Opium production could rise even if the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, now closely allied with the United States, gains control over large parts of the country. Last year, even as the Taliban outlawed opium cultivation, the Alliance continued to allow it. In fact, poppy cultivation tripled in the areas controlled by the Alliance.

With Taliban-controlled regions growing so little opium, the region produced more than 80 percent of Afghan opium, accordin to the UN. "From the point of view of the opium trade," says a U.N. anti-drug official, "the Northern Alliance is not better than the Taliban."

Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors are also worried that the Taliban's demise will worsen their own drug problems. Although little opium is grown in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Krygyzstan, and Turkmenistan, these countries face serious harm from heroin. With largely unguarded borders, as well as severely under-equipped and underpaid police forces, these countries have become the favored route for moving heroin to the Balkans, Europe and Russia. The trade has spread corruption, addicts and AIDS.

According to Fred Starr, director of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, the problem is exacerbated by the fact that those involved - smugglers, couriers, corrupt officials, and so on - are usually paid in kind. They then either sell the heroin to their friends and neighbors, or end up using it themselves. Either way, the drug ends up permeating cities and towns along trafficking routes. "It's nearly impossible to transport drugs over a country without leaving a residue of addicts," says Starr.

In discussions with U.S. officials, countries in the region made clear that they are very concerned with the drug trade. "They've been very worried about the narco-trade, about what has been flowing through the region," says a State Department official who recently traveled to Central Asia and met with representatives of several governments there. "They see it as a huge part of the Afghan problem."

If whoever ends up controlling Afghanistan can contain or reduce poppy cultivation, the country's neighbors will likely face another problem. Afghan drug lords could leave Afghanistan and relocate elsewhere in Central Asia.

"If, as I expect, the new government is forced to take a hard stand against drugs, then the effect will be to push it over the borders," says Starr. This is known as the balloon effect. "When you squeeze a balloon, the air simply moves to a different part of the balloon," says Antonella Deledda Titchener, a U.N. anti-drug official in Uzbekistan.

Cultivation is unlikely to move to Iran or Pakistan, Afghanistan's eastern and western neighbors. Over the last two decades the countries have almost completely stamped out opium farming, and are unlikely to allow it to return. Heroin has wreaked havoc in both countries - Iran has 1.25 million addicts, according to the U.N., while Pakistan has two million. "The push is going to be more toward the northern countries," says a State Department official. "That is a very real fear."

Tajikistan is the most likely target, experts say. It shares a long, mountainous border with Afghanistan, and is still recovering from its own anarchic civil war, which ended four years ago. "There's a lot of land there, and not a whole lot of people," says a State Department official. "It's got fertile land, good land for growing oppy."

The transfer may have already begun. "We have seen indications that traffickers are attempting to begin cultivation in Tajikistan," says a U.N. official. "So far we are talking about limited areas. But that's a strong possibility. We are very worried about that."

The country is already rife with drug corruption, Starr says: "In Tajikistan it is already deep into the political system. The trade and the processing, and probably now the growing."

The region will likely get increased anti-drug help from the United States. The U.S. believes it has a unique chance to sharply reduce heroin cultivation and production. "We have an opportunity to move 70% of the world's heroin supply off the market," says Steven Casteel, the intelligence chief for the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA).

In the past, the U.S. paid relatively little attention to the Central Asian heroin trade. Because almost none of the opium grown there ends up in America (most finds its way to Europe and Russia), the problem seemed less pressing than trafficking in Latin America.

But now, as part of the effort to transform Afghanistan into a unified, law-abiding country, the U.S. is eager to clamp down on the drug trade there. "Nobody is going to let Afghanistan go back to what it was, which is a fertile place for terrorism," says a State Department official. And drugs are part of that same problem, which is general lawlessness."

Experts disagree on how closely the region's terror groups are involved in opium trafficking. "Drug trafficking is fairly separate from terrorism," says a U.N. anti-drug official in the region. But Casteel described al Qaeda as "significantly" involved in the opium trade.

As part of the anti-drug effort, U.S. planes have reportedly bombed Afghan opium stockpiles. Although the success of these sorties is not known, Casteel said that bombing would not by itself eradicate the stockpiles, which may amount to more than half the harvest from the past four years.

"A stockpile is a suitcase full of opium," says Casteel, who spoke Tuesday after participating in a DEA-sponsored symposium on narco-terrorism. "It is very easy to move. Don't expect some smart bomb to sniff out every opium stockpile."

The DEA has already begun working on postwar anti-drug plans for the region. Casteel met yesterday in London with British law enforcement officials to begin working on a shared strategy. The U.S. is also working on preliminary plans to cut opium production.

To succeed, the plan must include non-military means, Casteel says; simply bombing will not work. "Are you prepared to go back every year and bomb the fields in Afghanistan? Bombing is a very narrow solution," he said. "You have to have a long-range plan."

An official with the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), a State Department agency, says the reduction measures will involve both diplomacy and developmental aid. The latter will be used as leverage offered in exchange for reducing or ending poppy cultivation.

But to succeed in curbing the drug trade, whoever ends up in charge of Afghanistan must give opium farmers and dealers a viable substitute.

"Let's see what kind of reconstruction the international community does," says a U.N. official. "Now they are all promising to help rebuild Afghanistan. Whoever ends up governing, even if they have the political will to end poppy cultivation, they will only succeed if they provide economic alternatives. Otherwise farmers will continue to grow it."

By David Kohn, © MMI, CBS Worldwide Inc. All Rights Reserved

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