Pubdate: Mon, 01 Apr 2002
Source: Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (TX)
Copyright: 2002 Star-Telegram, Fort Worth, Texas
Author: Tim Golden, The New York Times


American officials have quietly abandoned their hopes of reducing 
Afghanistan's opium production substantially this year and are bracing for 
a harvest large enough to inundate the world's heroin and opium markets 
with cheap drugs.

Although American and European officials have considered measures like 
paying Afghan opium poppy farmers to plow under their fields, they have 
concluded that continuing lawlessness and political instability will make 
significant eradication all but impossible.

Instead, U.S. officials said, they will pursue a less ambitious strategy: 
persuading Afghan leaders to carry out a modest eradication program as 
opium poppies are harvested over the next two months, if only to show that 
they were serious in declaring a ban on production in January.

The United States will also encourage the destruction of opium- processing 
laboratories and a crackdown on brokers, while providing funds to 
strengthen anti-smuggling activities by neighboring countries.

The campaign is being strongly backed and to some extent led by Britain, 
which traces nearly all the heroin on its streets to Afghanistan.

But the continuing upheaval in and around Afghanistan will limit the 
effectiveness of those strategies, U.S. and British officials acknowledge, 
making it likely that Afghanistan will produce enough opium to dominate the 
world supply again.

"The fact is, there are no institutions in large parts of the country," 
said John P. Walters, the Bush administration's drug policy director. "What 
we can do will be extremely limited."

Reducing the output of opium is a major goal of the international 
rebuilding effort in Afghanistan.

Until the Taliban banned the cultivation of opium poppies in their last 
year in power, Afghanistan produced as much as three-fourths of the world's 
supply, and taxes on the drug trade were an important source of revenue.

Now, the profits that flowed to local leaders aligned with the Taliban are 
expected to enrich tribal leaders and warlords whose support is vital to 
the U.S.-backed interim government.

So long as the drug trade flourishes, law enforcement officials said, it 
will fuel political rivalries, foster corruption and undermine the 
authority of the central government.

But because opium poppy farming remains one of the few viable economic 
activities, officials added, any intense eradication effort could imperil 
the stability of the government and thus hamper the military campaign 
against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

"The fight against terrorism takes priority," one British law enforcement 
official said. "The fight against narcotics comes in second."

Although it will be impossible to determine the size of this year's opium 
poppy crop until the poppies bloom and are harvested over the next two 
months, some U.S. estimates expect a crop large enough to provide a 
substantial stockpile.

"What is scary about this is that it really could give them enough opium to 
stockpile for two or 2 1/2 more years," a senior American official said.

Afghanistan's record harvest in 2000 was so large that opium dealers and 
traffickers set aside huge amounts of the drug, keeping heroin prices 
remarkably stable in countries such as Britain and Germany even when the 
world supply plummeted in 2001 because of the Afghans' ban.

Even now, U.N. officials said, those stockpiles hold enough opium to supply 
customers in Europe, Central Asia and other countries of the former Soviet 
Union for perhaps another year.
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