Is the Taliban Stockpiling Opium? And If So, Why?

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Antonio Maria Costa, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, speaks at a press conference in Kabul on Aug. 26

If international drug- and law-enforcement officials are right, the Taliban might be hiding up to $3.2 billion worth of opium inside Afghanistan, potentially causing huge complications for NATO's decision this month to attack Afghanistan's opium laboratories and smuggling networks. If it exists, the drug stockpile would also have a major bearing on Afghan officials' tentative peace talks with the Taliban, which are favored by U.S. Central Command chief General David Petraeus and both U.S. presidential candidates.

According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, between 6,000 and 8,000 tons of opium have vanished during the past three years somewhere between the poppy fields of Afghanistan — which produce about 93% of the world's opium — and the world market. That's enough to supply all the world's heroin addicts for nearly two years. The whereabouts of the missing opium is a mystery so far, but international drug- and law-enforcement agencies say they believe the Taliban has begun to stockpile large quantities of the drug, which is worth about $464,000 per ton once it is exported from Afghanistan. When British forces recently occupied Musikalia in Helmand province, they uncovered a stockpile of 45 tons of opium. But that's a tiny fraction of what has disappeared. "Where is it? We have been asking," says Antonio Maria Costa, head of the U.N. drug office. He recently appealed to NATO forces and Western intelligence officers to launch an aggressive hunt for the opium.

The U.N.'s estimate of what is missing is based on simple arithmetic and market economics. The world consumes a steady 4,500 tons or so of opium a year, almost all of which comes from poppies grown in Afghanistan, where the crop earns about $1 billion a year for farmers, by U.N. estimates. Yet Afghan farmers have harvested far above world demand in recent years; last year's harvest was a record 8,200 tons and this year's crop dipped only slightly to about 7,700 tons, in part because the global food crisis sent the price of wheat rocketing, persuading many Afghan farmers to switch from opium.

It might sound like good news that so much opium has disappeared from the world drug market, but Costa believes the missing opium is a potential time bomb, and many law-enforcement officials agree. That's because the Taliban is believed to be "stockpiling to control the prices," says a spokesman for Britain's Serious Organized Crime Agency, who confirmed that NATO forces have uncovered Taliban stockpiles of opium. Despite the bumper opium harvests, the street price of heroin remains a costly $67 per g in European cities, and the price Afghan farmers charge for their opium has remained about $70 per kg (about $33 per lb.). If the entire crop had been sold during the past two years, "the prices should have collapsed," says Costa. "But there has been no price collapse."

The Taliban grow no opium themselves but earn millions by levying a 10% tithe on farmers. Since heroin use is dropping steadily in the West, the value of opium is diminishing — that's why officials are especially alarmed by the Taliban's stockpiles. "Who would have reasons to hold on to a devalued stock? People who have mischief in mind," says Costa. He believes that the Taliban is saving the opium for lean times. He says the hundreds of Afghans working for the U.N. drug office in southern Afghanistan have recently found notices posted by the Taliban advising farmers not to grow opium this year. A similar edict by the Taliban during its last year in power, in 2001, resulted in tight supplies and soaring prices on the world market. "This is classic market manipulation," Costa says.

The Taliban could also be stockpiling drugs in preparation for a possible onslaught on Afghanistan's drug lords. NATO defense ministers agreed at a summit in Budapest this month to use their soldiers in Afghanistan for the first time to attack opium laboratories and smuggling convoys, rather than simply destroy opium crops.

But there are other possible explanations for the missing opium. While fewer people in Europe and the U.S. use heroin — cocaine is much more popular among young drug users — heroin addiction is a growing problem in Russia and China. The spokesman for the British law-enforcement agency believes that the missing opium could be making its way to these growing markets, which may not yet be showing up on U.N. drug-consumption figures. "Some of the missing opium might also be lost during smuggling or processing, or be stashed everywhere from Kandahar to Turkey — even Western Europe," says Paul Smyth, head of the Operational Studies Program of the Royal United Services Institute in London. Still, few law-enforcement and drug officials believe these factors would explain all the missing opium, leaving the Taliban's intentions for its stockpiles a mystery.

(Click here for a photo essay on Afghanistan's mean streets.)

(Click here for a photo essay on war-torn Afghanistan.)