Pubdate: Thu, 19 Sep 2002
Source: ABC News (US Web)
Copyright: 2002 ABC News
Author: Andrew Chang
Bookmark: (Heroin)


The Taliban Is Gone, But Local Interests Keep the Afghan Drug Trade Alive

Afghanistan's vaunted heroin trade is back -- and many of its proceeds are
going to likely terror supporters as well as members of the incumbent
government, experts told ABCNEWS.

This month, the United Nations' Office of Drug Control Policy said in a
report that preliminary surveys had confirmed "a major resurgence" of opium
poppy cultivation in the Central Asian country. 

"It could be considerably high and considerably serious," said UNODCP
spokesman Kemal Kurspahic. "We can assume that Afghanistan will resume its
No. 1 spot at the production table."

Afghanistan is at the center of what's known as the Golden Crescent -- a
Central Asian version of Southeast Asia's infamous drug-supplying Golden

For years, it was the world's largest producer of the opium poppy, the raw
material for heroin. However, the country's notoriety exploded in the late
1990s, when the ruling Taliban regime levied taxes on the illicit harvest: a
10 percent tax on all production and 20 percent tax on trade. Some reports
said authorities even issued receipts.

According to DEA estimates, Afghanistan shipped at least 2,000 metric tons
of heroin in 2001. With heroin selling for prices ranging from $50 per kilo
to $600 per kilo, that's at least $100 million or as much as $1.2 billion.

It was hoped that the ouster of the fundamentalist Islamic regime would end
this illicit trade.

On the contrary, little has changed aside from the fact that Taliban tax
collectors are no longer around. Those profiting from Afghanistan's
post-Taliban heroin market are the same ones that profited during the
Taliban reign. 

Those that are making money are, in the words of Afghanistan expert Barnett
Rubin, "the same as they always were." 

Keeping Quiet: A Good Business Decision

Haji Bashir was once a major Taliban money supplier and leading drug kingpin
of southern Afghanistan.

Today, Bashir has dropped all ties to the former regime and become a "fine,
upstanding citizen," said Rubin, director of New York University's Center on
International Cooperation. But when asked if he thought Bashir was still
involved in the drug trade, Rubin replied "probably."

According to Thomas Gouttierre, director of the Center for Afghanistan
Studies at the University of Nebraska, Bashir is in fact still exhorting
farmers to grow opium poppies. But to keep up ties with his former
fundamentalist backer, Rubin said -- "that would no longer be a sound
business decision."

It is possible more obvious elements of al Qaeda and Taliban could also be
profiting from the heroin trade as well, experts said. Many of the routes
used by traffickers to move heroin out of Afghanistan run through Pakistan's
tribal belt, a porous border area suspected to be a refuge for bin Laden if
he is still alive.

In May of this year, international financial crime expert Jack Blum told a
House panel on corruption he believes powers in that region have taken a cut
of that trade.

"An awful lot of the insanity that was going on in Kashmir was financed out
of that heroin flow, because the Pakistani secret service was involved in
helping support the flow," said Blum, a Washington lawyer and former
investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

And despite promises of cooperation from Pakistan's leaders and efforts to
allow the pursuit of drug traffickers across borders, Blum said he expected
the elements in that area, which have been linked to terror, to continue to
profit from the heroin trade.

"The problem of the corruption surrounding drugs on that route is absolutely
astonishing. I have no faith at all that any agreement to chase or not to
chase would make any difference," he said. 

Into the Pockets of Allies

The flow of profits from the heroin trade are not only going to possible
terrorists, but American allies as well. Post-Taliban Afghanistan's drug
woes hit the international stage with a vengeance this July, with the
assassination of Vice President Haji Abdul Qadir.

Days after the incident, President Bush was asked who he thought might have
been involved -- and he raised the possibility that drug lords might have
been responsible. Qadir's killers have not been caught.

Qadir, one of the country's richest men, was reported to be a drug baron
himself. His traditional power base was Jalalabad, a city in eastern
Afghanistan that is ringed with vast fields of opium poppies, and has
prospered from its proximity to the Pakistani border. 

Earlier this year, Qadir's troops raided Ghani Khiel, the country's largest
opium market. But there were rumors that Qadir's men burned only a fraction
of what they seized, and sold the rest.

The governor of Kandahar province, Gul Agha, who has reportedly received CIA
money, and made a number of very public drug interdiction efforts, is also
said to have drug ties.

During a previous term as governor from 1992-1994, his tenure was marked by
corruption. In January, he reportedly lobbied the U.S. military to release
Bashir himself.

"The revenue from this poppy is an essential element of the ability of the
warlords who are supporting us in going after the Taliban," Blum said in his

Without heroin, any Afghan administration would be hard-pressed to provide
for its people, he said. "We are in the dilemma of what do you do? Do you
try to wipe out their crop and leave them broke and then pay them money? Or
do you let them grow the poppy and export the poppy?" 

Country Still in Chaos

Given the tangle of interests that surround Afghanistan's drug problem, few
experts thought more eradication efforts and law enforcement efforts would
do it alone.

One of the major problems, explained DEA official Tom Hinojosa, is that the
country is still in chaos. "There's a war going on there. The eradication
they've done there are in those regions they are able to get to," he said.

The Afghan government has mainly been in charge of eradication efforts, with
some advisory assistance from Britain.

Dealing with the drug problem will also entail developing alternatives for
Afghan farmers, like artichokes, avocados, cut flowers, and lavender -- and
then finding markets for them.

The problem is not that simple though. Roads and irrigation systems will
also have to be established, experts said. Opium poppies turned out to be an
ideal crop for drought-stricken, war-torn Afghanistan because they consumed
little water, and produced a highly valuable, easily transportable

The problem that faces the Afghan government is "more of a market adjustment
than a policy objective," said Gouttierre.

According to a report from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization
released in August, profits at the farm level from the 2002 opium poppy
harvest could be worth more than $1 billion.

That's almost 5 percent of the country's GDP -- an equivalent proportion
produced in the United States by home building and related industries.

"This is possibly one of the most complicated, atrocious problems that
anyone could ever imagine," Blum said.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Doc-Hawk