Pubdate: Sun, 17 Jun 2001
Source: Observer, The (UK)
Copyright: 2001 The Observer
Author: Peter Beaumont,


Failure To Back Afghan Rulers Could Actually Boost The Heroin

It is Harvest time in the Helmand Valley. The farmers of Afghanistan
should now be picking the pale pink opium poppies for processing. But
the impoverished field workers - who have no other source of income in
a country racked by years of war and now devastated by drought - are
idle. Fields that, according to the United Nations, last year provided
three-quarters of the world's supply of heroin have not been planted
this year on the orders of the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalists
who control 95% of the country. The result is that Afghanistan, which
last year produced 3,200 tonnes of opium, will probably produce barely
200 tonnes this year.

Experts in the drug trade describe the decision not to plant the
fields for this year's harvest as an 'historic event', unparalleled in
the illegal narcotics business. They also believe the Taliban's
unilateral decision, far from being a cause for celebration, may have
set the scene for the next disaster in the troubled international 'war
on drugs'.

Already, say monitors of the UN Drugs Control Programme, prices for
raw opium inside Afghanistan have risen at the farm gate from ?25 to
?250 a kilo. Similar inflation is seen in neighbouring countries in
Central Asia. They warn that in the longer term the Taliban's decision
will make the planting of the opium poppy more attractive to farmers
in other areas.

Although the UN and other agencies have evidence that the Taliban have
strategic stockpiles of the drug - believed to be between 200 and 300
tonnes, including 150 tonnes on the border with Tajikistan -
intelligence officers with Britain's Customs and Excise are convinced
the production of opiates in Afghanistan has been substantially curtailed.

'We do believe that the supply has been reduced this year,' said a
spokesman for Customs last week. 'But it is too early to say what
impact that will have on prices and supply.'

The immediate impact of the Taliban's moratorium was underlined last
week by the head of the UN Drugs Control Programme, Pino Arlacchi, who
believed it was impossible for other producers of opium - such as
Burma, Colombia, Iran and the former Soviet republics of Central Asia
- - to make up the deficit in the illegal trade in opiate-based narcotics.

He predicted that opium and heroin prices internationally would rise
by up to seven times, after having fallen sharply for a decade.

What is worrying analysts is how long the Taliban will continue to
prohibit the growing of poppies, faced with international indifference
to its gesture.

'The reduction is probably the most dramatic event in the history of
illegal drug markets, not only in scale but also in the fact that it
was done domestically, without international assistance,' said
Frederick Starr, of the Central Asia Institute at Johns Hopkins
University in Washington.

Starr believes the banning of opium production by the Taliban has been
catastrophically mishandled by the UN and the international community.

'For years UN delegations have been wandering through Kabul telling
the Taliban that cultivating opium was bad and that they should stop
it. They talked to the Taliban about aid packages of up to ?180m if
they would do it, but no agreement was ever signed. By the UN's own
estimation the Taliban were making no more than ?18m from taxing the
trade that at most was worth ?107m. But the Taliban felt there was a
deal in the air and they were expecting a quid pro quo for stopping
opium production.

'What has happened instead is that since their declaration there has
been no aid. Worse than that, new sanctions were introduced against
them in December. What we can expect to happen next is for the other
countries in the region to quickly take up the slack in opium
production. And if the Taliban are not getting anything in return,
they are not going to sit by while others corner the trade.'

The net result - according to Starr and other analysts - may be an
increase in global opium production.

'There has been an absolute deficit of leadership on this,
particularly from Europe, the main consumer, and the UN.

'The issue is simple. The international community has got to persuade
the Taliban that it is supporting them in this effort. That requires
setting minimum standards for recognising the Taliban and for giving
aid to the people of Afghanistan. The real cynics say this is just
about getting the price of opium up by turning off the supply in the
short term. Personally I don't buy that.

'The Taliban are doing this because they have been led to believe they
will be rewarded if they stop the production of opium. Instead, since
their declaration last year that they would stop the planting the
reverse has happened.'

Dr Jonathan Cave, an expert in the economics of the drugs trade who
works with both the Rand Corporation, the US think-tank, and Warwick
University, believes Europe may suffer unpleasant consequences from
its failure to plan for an expected shortfall in heroin supply.

One predicted result is an increased demand for cocaine from hundreds
of thousands of non-injecting heroin users who graduated from cocaine.
Another, said Cave, is an upsurge in violent crime among suppliers and
processors competing for smaller supplies of a more valuable resource.

'You can be sure the criminals are responding to the new situation in
the market, but no one among the white hats is even

This was reiterated by Arlacchi. 'Even if in the long term this
reduction of supply is a major success,' he told the New York Times
last week, 'it will be sustainable only with a parallel reduction in
the demand in the industrial countries.'
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