Pubdate: Sun, 20 May 2001
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2001 The New York Times Company
Author: Barbara Crossette
Bookmark: (Heroin)


UNITED NATIONS, May 18  The first American narcotics experts to go to 
Afghanistan under Taliban rule have concluded that the movement's ban on 
opium-poppy cultivation appears to have wiped out the world's largest crop 
in less than a year, officials said today.

The American findings confirm earlier reports from the United Nations drug 
control program that Afghanistan, which supplied about three-quarters of 
the world's opium and most of the heroin reaching Europe, had ended poppy 
planting in one season.

But the eradication of poppies has come at a terrible cost to farming 
families, and experts say it will not be known until the fall planting 
season begins whether the Taliban can continue to enforce it.

"It appears that the ban has taken effect," said Steven Casteel, assistant 
administrator for intelligence at the Drug Enforcement Administration in 

The findings came in part from a Pakistan-based agent of the administration 
who was one of the two Americans on the team just returned from eight days 
in the poppy-growing areas of Afghanistan.

Mr. Casteel said in an interview today that he was still studying aerial 
images to determine if any new poppy-growing areas had emerged. He also 
said that some questions about the size of hidden opium and heroin 
stockpiles near the northern border of Afghanistan remained to be answered. 
But the drug agency has so far found nothing to contradict United Nations 

The sudden turnaround by the Taliban, a move that left international drug 
experts stunned when reports of near-total eradication began to come in 
earlier this year, opens the way for American aid to the Afghan farmers who 
have stopped planting poppies.

On Thursday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell announced a $43 million 
grant to Afghanistan in additional emergency aid to cope with the effects 
of a prolonged drought. The United States has become the biggest donor to 
help Afghanistan in the drought.

"We will continue to look for ways to provide more assistance to the 
Afghans," he said in a statement, "including those farmers who have felt 
the impact of the ban on poppy cultivation, a decision by the Taliban that 
we welcome."

The Afghans are desperate for international help, but describe their 
opposition to drug cultivation purely in religious terms.

At the State Department, James P. Callahan, director of Asian affairs at 
the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs who was 
one of the experts sent to Afghanistan, described in an interview how the 
Taliban had applied and enforced the ban. He was told by farmers that "the 
Taliban used a system of consensus-building."

They framed the ban "in very religious terms," citing Islamic prohibitions 
against drugs, and that made it hard to defy, he added. Those who defied 
the edict were threatened with prison.

Mr. Callahan said that in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand, 
where the Taliban's hold is strongest, farmers said they would rather 
starve than return to poppy cultivation  and some of them will, experts say.

In parts of Nangahar province in the east, where the Taliban's hold is less 
complete, farmers told the visiting experts that they would flee to 
Pakistan or risk illegal crops rather than watch their families die.

The end of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has come at a huge cost 
to farmers, Mr. Callahan and Mr. Casteel said. The rural economy, 
especially in the usual opium-poppy areas, had come to rely on the 
narcotics trade. "The bad side of the ban is that it's bringing their 
country  or certain regions of their country  to economic ruin," Mr. 
Casteel said. "They are trying to replace the crop with wheat, but that is 
easier said than done."

"Wheat needs more water and earns no money until it is sold," Mr. Casteel 
said. "With the opium trade they used to get their money up front."

The Taliban, who used to collect taxes on the movement of opium, is also 
losing money, adding another layer of difficulty for a government that is 
already isolated and not recognized diplomatically by most nations.

Afghanistan is now under United Nations sanctions, imposed at the 
insistence of the United States because the Islamic movement will not turn 
over Osama bin Laden for trial in connection with attacks on two American 
Embassies in Africa in 1998.

American experts and United Nations officials say the Taliban are likely to 
face political problems if the effects of the opium ban are catastrophic 
and many people die.
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