U.S. officials are exploring ways to prevent a surge in opium cultivation in Afghanistan, once the world's leading producer, now that the Taliban's control is crumbling.
The challenge is persuading the factions likely to govern to fight opium production and trafficking, when these groups in the past have shown little inclination to do that.
U.S. officials want to make drug-fighting a condition for receiving international humanitarian aid. They expect some of the assistance will include programs to encourage Afghan farmers to give up opium, the raw material for heroin, in favor of wheat and other legal crops.
Representatives of U.S. anti-drug agencies have met to begin developing a plan. With efforts under way to form a new multiethnic government in Afghanistan, the opium issue is attracting the attention of leading Bush administration officials.
U.S. policy-makers had limited interest in it before the Sept. 11 attacks. Afghan opium is sold mostly in Europe and Asia. It accounts for only a tiny fraction of the heroin sold in the United States, most of which is from Latin America.
After Sept. 11, Afghan opium was seen in a new light: as an important moneymaker for the Taliban militia that harbored Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the attacks.
Afghan opium production surged after the Taliban took control of most of the country in 1996, and reached a peak of 4,030 U.S. tons last year, according to State Department statistics. That accounted for 72 percent of the world market.
Citing Islamic principles, the Taliban banned opium, virtually eliminating it from its territory this year. U.S. officials suspect the Taliban was trying to reduce the opium supply to boost the price of existing stockpiles.
The ban remains in effect, but farmers began ignoring it after Sept. 11.
"The farmers are poor people and they need money and the opium crop is a profitable crop for them," said Mohammad Amirkhizi, an official of the U.N. Drug Control Program in Vienna, Austria. "If the conditions remain in a way that no one is enforcing the non-cultivation of illicit drugs in Afghanistan, then the farmers will go back to cultivating."
The Taliban's rivals have not tried to ban opium and some are believed to have profited from the drug trade. In March, the State Department said that the northern alliance, which now controls about 85 percent of Afghanistan, "has taken no action of which we are aware against cultivation and trafficking in its area."
Asa Hutchinson, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said it is too early to tell how cooperative the northern alliance will be in the future.
"Certainly we're not naive that the northern alliance does not have their own interest and history in poppy cultivation and trafficking," he said. "But it's certainly a new world in Afghanistan and we're just going to have to work hard to encourage (an) anti-drug policy."
Hutchinson said the DEA has been working with Afghanistans neighbors, including Pakistan, to help block the movement of Afghan opium through their territory.
S. Frederick Starr, a Central Asia specialist at Johns Hopkins University, said rejecting opium will be one of four important conditions for any Afghan faction seeking international recognition and aid. The other conditions are rejecting terrorism and supporting human rights and democracy.
"Different groups will find it more difficult or easier, but in the end they'll have no choice," he said.
Amirkhizi said that besides insisting that the next Afghan government curb opium cultivation and trafficking, the international community should provide opium farmers with help in switching to legal crops.
The U.S. Agency for International Development was considering such a program in southern Afghanistan, channeling assistance through a non-governmental organization. The plan was derailed by the Sept. 11 attacks.
Andrew S. Natsios, the agency's administrator, said he hopes it can move ahead with the program once Afghanistan becomes more stable. Even then, the program would have to be tested in a limited area before being expanded nationwide.
"We certainly want to find an alternative to opium production," he said. "However, you don't start a program unless you can prove its worth. We're not going to go in and invest $50 million and have it fail on you."
By Ken Guggenheim © MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed