Pubdate: Sat, 18 Sep 2004
Source: Boston Globe (MA)
Copyright: 2004 Globe Newspaper Company
Author: Victoria Burnett, Globe Correspondent
Bookmark: (Heroin)


In War on Drugs, Authorities Seek to Uproot Poppies

KABUL, Afghanistan -- These have been fat years for Afghanistan's drug
lords. Since the Taliban collapsed in November 2001, traffickers, some
militia commanders, and provincial officials have reaped rich rewards
from the opium and heroin industry, according to government and
Western officials.

But in the coming months, Afghan leaders hope to crack down on the
illicit industry by deploying a team of judges, prosecutors, and
police to target what they fear is a growing community of drug barons.

The "judicial task force" seeks to rise above the chaos of
Afghanistan's corrupt, ineffectual judiciary. While it will initially
take on only a small number of cases, the government says it will
signal that the days when traffickers can buy or threaten their way
out of jail are ending.

"They'd work as a team -- pursue a case from beginning to end,"
Interior Minister Ali Jalali said of the collaborative effort of the
three judges, nine prosecutors, and several investigative police. "If
you make a high-profile arrest and then you can't make a conviction,
you make a fool of yourself."

President Bush signaled his continuing concern about the issue
Thursday, as he included the country on his list of major
drug-producing nations and said its US-backed president, Hamid Karzai,
would be unable to solve the problem.

Local and foreign antinarcotics officials said it was unlikely the
task force would make any sensitive arrests before the Oct. 9
presidential election. But in a recent interview, a senior Afghan
official involved in drug policy said the task force eventually would
target prominent offenders. To buttress his assertion, he linked
several senior commanders and a handful of provincial governors to the
drug trade, on condition that their names not be printed for fear of
harming possible investigations.

The United Nations estimated that the Afghan drug trade was worth $2.2
billion last year. The government and its international allies have
struggled to confront the rise in cultivation of opium poppies, which
spread last year to about 198,000 acres last year and produced nearly
4,000 tons of opium.

Eradication efforts led by the United Kingdom in 2002 and 2003 failed
to reduce production, which had hit a low of 185 tons in 2001, when
the Taliban banned poppy cultivation.

"Rather than getting better, it's gotten worse. There is a potential
for drugs overwhelming the institutions -- a sort of a narco-state,"
said Zalmay Khalilzad, the US ambassador to Kabul.

In a country where economic options are few and the government is not
strong enough to police the provinces, the opium industry is a potent
magnet. Local and foreign antidrug officials agree they need to
sharpen the disincentives and weaken the rewards.

"People think it's lucrative. They think it's easy. They don't think
it's wrong. They don't think it's risky," Khalilzad said in a recent
interview. "So the question is, how do you make it less lucrative? If
people think it's easy, how do you make it difficult?"

Estimates of this year's crop are not yet available, but government
officials say there are indications that despite continued eradication
efforts, as much land was dedicated this year to growing poppies as last

Production may be lower because disease affected the amount of opium
produced per acre, officials said.

But with the harvest over, signs abound in the Afghan economy that
drug dollars are flooding in. In August, the local currency, the
afghani, strengthened from about 47 to the US dollar to 41 -- a rise
of 13 percent. Construction, which a foreign economic analyst in Kabul
said is a classic vehicle for money laundering, has reached fever
pitch, with mansions and office blocks springing up all over the capital.

In addition, counternarcotics officials say, a rise in the number of
heroin labs and a growing influx of chemical precursors used to make
heroin from opium indicate a growing proportion of heroin is being
processed inside the country. This signals the growth of criminal
networks that counternarcotics officials fear will be difficult to

"Our concern is not so much that poppy production has risen, but that
[the country] is now producing heroin," says Alexandre Schmidt, deputy
head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Kabul. "We have in
Afghanistan, as of 2004, developed a huge organized crime network, and
there's a risk we won't be able to control it."

Frustrated by the lack of progress and alarmed by the growth of the
opium industry, the United States sharply increased counternarcotics
funding this year and helped train teams of eradicators. The Pentagon
put $73 million into antidrug efforts, compared to nothing in 2003,
and the State Department increased funding from $30 million to $50

"The US is very keen to help us now. This is now a cross-cutting
issue," said Mirwais Yasini, the Afghan government's top drug official.

A US-trained, centralized poppy eradication force this summer
eliminated 2,500 acres in two provinces, according to Yasini. A
parallel program led by Britain and involving provincial eradication
teams eliminated as much as 22,000 acres, according to Yasini, though
Western officials say the figure was much lower.

There are growing signs that the Pentagon, which has been eager to
avoid the drug issue and focus on its hunt for terrorists and Islamic
insurgents, may become more involved in the fight.

On a visit to Kabul last month, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld
singled out drugs as a problem "too serious to be ignored."

Khalilzad said he expected the US-led coalition to expand its role in
Afghanistan's war on drugs. "They could [be more involved]. There's
no question of that," he said. "I anticipate some broadening, but how
much and for what purpose?" 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake