Terrorism's Harvest

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CULTIVATION: A man tends a poppy field near the road from Kabul to Jalalabad

U.S. forces on the trail of Osama bin Laden and the leaders of the Taliban in late 2001 didn't worry much about elderly, pious-looking men like Haji Juma Khan. A towering tribesman from the Baluchistan desert near Pakistan, Khan was picked up that December near Kandahar and taken into U.S. custody. Though known to U.S. and Afghan officials as a drug trafficker, he seemed an insignificant catch. "At the time, the Americans were only interested in catching bin Laden and [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar," says a European counterterrorism expert in Kabul. "Juma Khan walked."

That decision has come back to haunt the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan. Western intelligence agencies believe Khan has become the kingpin of a heroin-trafficking enterprise that is a principal source of funding for the Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists. A Western law-enforcement official in Kabul who is tracking Khan says agents in Pakistan and Afghanistan, after a tip-off in May, turned up evidence that Khan is employing a fleet of cargo ships to move Afghan heroin out of the Pakistani port of Karachi. The official says at least three vessels on return trips from the Middle East took arms like plastic explosives and antitank mines, which were secretly unloaded in Karachi and shipped overland to al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. Khan is now a marked man. "He's obviously very tightly tied to the Taliban," says Robert Charles, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement. Mirwais Yasini, head of the Afghan government's Counter-Narcotics Directorate, says, "There are central linkages among Khan, Mullah Omar and bin Laden."

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The emergence of Khan's network reflects the challenges the U.S. still faces in Afghanistan as the U.S. struggles to hunt al-Qaeda's leaders, disarm Afghanistan's warlords and shore up President Hamid Karzai against a revived Taliban-led insurgency. The renewed trade in opium has worsened all those problems. The World Bank calculates that more than half of Afghanistan's economy is tied up in drugs. The combined incomes of farmers and in-country traffickers reached $2.23 billion last year — up from $1.3 billion in 2002. Heroin trafficking has long been the main source of funds for local warlords' private armies, which thwart Karzai's attempts to expand his authority beyond Kabul. But the drug trade is becoming even more dangerous: U.S. and British counterterrorism experts say al-Qaeda and its Taliban allies are increasingly financing operations with opium sales. Antidrug officials in Afghanistan have no hard figures on how much al-Qaeda and the Taliban are earning from drugs, but conservative estimates run to tens of millions of dollars.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda don't grow the opium poppies. Their involvement is higher up the drug chain, where profits are fatter, and so is their cut of the deal. Yasini says the terrorists receive a share of profits in return for supplying gunmen to protect labs and convoys. Recent busts have revealed evidence of al-Qaeda's ties to the trade. On New Year's Eve, a U.S. Navy vessel stopped a small fishing boat in the Arabian Sea. After a search, says a Western antinarcotics official, "they found several al-Qaeda guys sitting on a bale of drugs." In January U.S. and Afghan agents raided a drug runner's house in Kabul and found a dozen or so satellite phones. The phones were passed on to the CIA station in Kabul, which found that they had been used to call numbers linked to suspected terrorists in Turkey, the Balkans and Western Europe. And in March U.S. troops searching a suspected terrorist hideout in Oruzgan province found opium with an estimated street value of $15 million.

Antidrug officials say the only way to cut off al-Qaeda's pipeline is to destroy the poppy farms. U.S. military commanders have been reluctant to commit the nearly 20,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to opium eradication, fearing that doing so would divert attention from the hunt for terrorists. The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has tapped top Drug Enforcement Administration official Harold Wankel to lead an intensified drive to nail kingpins, shut down heroin-production labs, eradicate poppy fields and persuade farmers to plant food crops. If the drug cartels aren't stopped, the U.S. fears, they could sow more chaos in Afghanistan — which al-Qaeda and the Taliban could exploit to wrest back power. Miwa Kato, a Kabul-based officer for the U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime, puts it this way: "The opium problem has the capacity to undo everything that's being done here to help the Afghans." Few outcomes would please America's enemies more.