Losing the Opium War

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NISID HAJARIThe Taliban promised a show. in the high hills along the Pakistan border, members of the strict Islamic group that controls most of Afghanistan planned to seek out and destroy several hidden nests of laboratories--each transforming sticky brown opium gum into heroin. More than a dozen Western, Pakistani and Afghan journalists dutifully trooped to eastern Nangarhar province to watch. But when they arrived in the remote Ouch Bandar district, they found only a pile of rubble and a clutch of nervous, bedraggled laborers. Each lab was no bigger than an outhouse. We are workers and were paid 500 rupees [about $10] a day, said one of the captured men, Ghainullah. The owners all fled.The spectacle hardly lived up to its billing. But then again, neither has the Taliban. In the past two months, the regime has labored to put itself in the world's good graces--claiming to have split from Saudi financier and alleged terrorism sponsor Osama bin Laden, agreeing to talks with anti-Taliban forces and, in Ouch Bandar, making a show of attacking the region's powerful drug lords. The efforts have earned the militia little but scorn. Testifying before the U.S. Congress last week, assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs Karl Inderfurth warned that Taliban leaders were playing a risky and unwise game by continuing to insist--against all evidence--that bin Laden had left Afghanistan. The Taliban's efforts to combat drugs are no less implausible--and just as worrisome.

Long the linchpin of the Golden Crescent--the opium-growing region that stretches through Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan--Afghanistan has now assumed a dominant position in the volatile area. Data on actual production are scarce. But according to a report by the United Nations International Narcotics Control Board, the country may have overtaken Burma as the world's leading producer of opium, with a 1998 yield of 2,200 tons, up 9% from the previous year. (A little over 10 tons of opium is needed to produce 1 ton of heroin.) Two outside factors helped propel Afghanistan toward that dubious honor: poor weather, which damaged last year's crop in Burma, and stricter enforcement in Pakistan, which reduced last year's opium output to a mere 25 tons, from nearly 800 tons two decades ago. But the Taliban's benign neglect of, and in some cases open cooperation with, poppy farmers also contributed to the bumper crop. Last month the White House cited numerous reports of drug traffickers operating in Taliban territory with the consent or involvement of some Taliban officials before decertifying Kabul for failing to live up to its obligations under the 1988 U.N. Drug Convention.

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Osama bin Laden lashes out against the West in an exclusive interview
--TIME Asia, Jan. 11, 1999

Is the U.S. better off capturing Bin Laden or having him hobbled by the Taliban?
--TIME Daily, March 4, 1998
 
At the same time, the crackdown in neighboring Pakistan has enlarged the scope of drug activity in Afghanistan. Tiny heroin labs like those the Taliban destroyed last month first sprang up in the lawless tribal areas of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province in the early 1980s. In recent years, as active-duty army officers have assumed control over Islamabad's drug-interdiction efforts, those factories have been driven onto Afghan soil (although the drug barons who own them remain secure in heavily guarded, high-walled compounds in Pakistan itself). Afghanistan could now be making all the illegal heroin that formerly came from Pakistan, says Bernard Frahi, a representative of the United Nations International Drug Control Program.

The grim harvest has the same primary destination as usual: Western Europe, which obtains 80% of its heroin from the Golden Crescent. But many shipments have taken up new routes. In the past, smugglers slipped into Iran, sailed out from Karachi or took advantage of the maze of trails and dry riverbeds in the Himalayan foothills and the barren desert in Rajasthan to sneak into India, where they shipped the drugs out of Bombay or New Delhi. Now that surrounding countries have begun to tighten their porous borders, however, up to 65% of the region's opium and processed heroin is being moved through Central Asian republics like Tajikistan and Turkmenistan--and then sent onward through Russia and the Baltic States to Western Europe.

Taliban officials say they would raze the country's poppy fields far more quickly if the international community would fund crop-substitution programs and, importantly, recognize the regime as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The farmers would happily give up poppy cultivation if it provided alternate means of livelihood, says Abdul Hamid Akhundzada, the Taliban's high commissioner for drug control. The claim is dubious: according to the White House, opium is Afghanistan's largest cash crop, and perhaps the largest source of income in the country. And the Taliban's unsavory reputation continues to scare off potential international donors for Afghanistan's anti-narcotics efforts. U.N. officials have been able to drum up only $10 million in funding for this purpose, compared with $200 million pledged for projects in the tribal belt of Pakistan. The UNDCP has begun two limited crop-substitution programs in Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces, and Akhundzada says the regime is eagerly awaiting results. One hopes they will be more impressive than previous efforts.

Reported by Meenakshi Ganguly/New Delhi and Rahimullah Yusufzai/Peshawar

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Osama bin Laden lashes out against the West in an exclusive interview
--TIME Asia, Jan. 11, 1999

Is the U.S. better off capturing Bin Laden or having him hobbled by the Taliban?
--TIME Daily, March 4, 1998