Pubdate: Wed, 26 Sep 2001
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2001 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: John Donnelly, Globe Staff Writer


WASHINGTON - The Taliban government in Afghanistan has told farmers they can
once again produce opium if the United States launches an attack on the
country, reversing the position it took last year when the group's leader
said drug cultivation was ''un-Islamic,'' United Nations officials said

Drug control officials said the decision would probably result in a boom of
opium cultivation beginning in about two weeks, the start of growing season.

They believe the turnabout was motivated by the need for more funding by the
Taliban and possibly terror groups, as well as recognition that the
government would be hard-pressed to control the cultivation of poppies after
a US attack.

The price for a kilogram of Afghan opium has plummeted in the last two days
from $500 to about $100, according to United Nations narcotics-control
officials, who attribute the drop to a rapid selloff of stockpiles because
of fears of an imminent attack.

''Our sources tell us that people who have stocks of opium are trying to get
rid of them as quickly as possible,'' said Mohammad S. Amirkhizi, senior
policy adviser at the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention in

Meanwhile, the United States has renewed pressure on the United Arab
Emirates to crack down on financial transactions that are believed to be
linked to drugs and the Qaeda terror group led by Saudi exile Osama bin
Laden, two administration officials said.

Since the Taliban took over much of Afghanistan in 1996, the drug trade has
boomed, producing about 70 percent of the world's opium, which is refined in
laboratories to make heroin. An estimated 90 percent of Europe's heroin
supply last year originated in Afghan fields.

But in July 2000, the Taliban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar,
prohibited farmers from growing poppies, calling it a violation of Islamic
law. Visits by UN officials to the main cultivation regions in the southern
Helmand and Kandahar districts in November 2000 and last April and May found
that the edict had reduced cultivation by 95 percent in Taliban-controlled
areas. Relatively small amounts grew in areas controlled by the anti-Taliban
Northern Alliance.

But it has become clear that the country accumulated vast stockpiles of
opium even before the ban took effect, say drug officials. Rather than
eliminate the drug from Afghanistan, the ban has only made it more
profitable for those who are selling it by driving up its price, they say.

The price per kilogram, which at the time of Mullah Omar's ban was around
$30, reached $500 last month, before the recent sell-off, authorities said.

''As a result of the ban, whoever has these stocks benefited greatly from
increasing prices,'' Amirkhizi said yesterday.

Some specialists have questioned whether the Taliban's edict against growing
poppies was real or just a way to drive up prices.

''The opium going out of Afghanistan hasn't gone down at all,'' said a US
official who follows the global drug trade, speaking on condition of
anonymity. ''They have increased production dramatically over the last three
years and found themselves swimming in opium, and they have been moving it
out to reduce their stocks, as well as reap bigger profits.''

Farmers openly pay local Taliban officials a 10 percent tax per kilo on
their opium production, and traders pay a 20 percent tax to other Taliban
leaders, Amirkhizi said. ''After that, what they do and who gets what cut is

Most of the drugs produced in Afghanistan are transported along an ancient
trade route across Iran, Turkey, the Balkans, and then into Europe. A
substantial amount of opium grown in northern Afghanistan, as well as in the
Jalalabad region, goes through Central Asian countries of Tajikistan and
Uzebekistan, through Russia, and then into Europe.

But UN and US narcotics-control officials say that drugs are also moved over
land from Pakistan and then by boat to the United Arab Emirates, as well as
by cargo planes between the southern Afghan city of Kandahar and Dubai.
Cargo planes have been flying that route at least twice weekly in violation
of UN sanctions against Afghanistan.

''The Emirates is one of the transit countries by virtue of its geographic
location,'' said one US official. ''From the UAE, it's on the way to Europe
in serious quantities.''

Officials at the United Arab Emirates Embassy in Washington did not return
phone calls yesterday seeking comment. But a former US official with ties to
the Gulf region disputed whether the Bush administration was concerned about
the United Arab Emirates as a transit point for drugs. Instead, the former
official said, there were renewed US requests to Gulf states to clamp down
on financial transactions going to bin Laden's group.

Amirkhizi said he now expects farmers to plant poppies soon in fields
throughout southern and eastern Afghanistan. Many farmers, he said, were hit
hard by the ban against growing poppy and a devastating drought, now in its
fourth year.

If the United States strikes Taliban targets and the Taliban lose control
over much of the country, he said, the drug trade will flourish.

''No security and no order in the country would mean that the production
again would widely develop this year,'' Amirkhizi said. ''Harvesting season
is in about four months. If we don't come out of the crisis period by then,
there will be nobody to control the production.''
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