Opium a tool for Taliban

Heroin: The radical regime, armed through drug profits, plans to lift its ban on poppy-growing if the U.S. attacks.

October 07, 2001|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

QUETTA, Pakistan - Down the road from St. Francis Grammar School, beneath the Jinna Road Bridge, where stray dogs curl up beside the stench of an open sewer, the heroin addicts of Quetta come to get high.

Their shadowy home is in Pakistan. But the source of their drugs is neighboring Afghanistan, whose poppy fields supply more than 70 percent of the world's opium and heroin. And the short trip across Afghanistan's porous 1,500-mile border makes heroin available here for less than $1.25 a gram to glassy-eyed addicts like 65-year-old Noor Shah.

"If we don't smoke, we are like dead bodies," said Shah, a one-eyed man dressed in rags who lives like a troll beneath the bridge. "We can't do anything. We cannot move. A life of a dog is better than this life." He said he has been using heroin for 45 years.

The drug habit has helped arm Afghanistan's Taliban regime. Profits from the drug trade are directly linked to the Taliban, who control the land where poppies are grown and promote cultivation to finance their military, according to the most recent U.S. State Department narcotics control report. The Taliban levy a 10 percent tax on opium sales, even issuing receipts to drug dealers, officials say.

"The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets," British Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a speech last week. "That is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy."

Asa Hutchinson, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, went one step further last week by connecting drugs, Osama bin Laden and the Taliban regime that allows him to live in Afghanistan as a "guest." Although there is no direct evidence linking bin Laden to the drug trade, Hutchinson said, "the relationship between the Taliban and bin Laden is believed to have flourished in large part due to the Taliban's substantial reliance on the opium trade as a source of organizational revenue."

The Taliban, however, banned poppy cultivation last year. The move drove up the cost of opium to $400 a kilo from $44 as the government destroyed poppy fields and farmers turned to other crops. Afghanistan has produced about 74 metric tons of opium so far this year, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, down from the 3,656 metric tons it produced last year. But there has been no drop in availability of opium and related drugs, leading drug officials to believe that Afghanistan maintains drug stockpiles that continue to benefit the Taliban.

The Taliban plan to lift the ban if the United States conducts retaliatory strikes against it, according to reports coming from Afghanistan. Drug officials are concerned that Afghan drug lords are dumping their stockpiles on the world market to generate as much money as they can before possible U.S. strikes. Such a move will likely drive down the cost of heroin - making the drug more easily available to addicts and new users.

Afghanistan's drug trade, however, cannot be blamed entirely on the Taliban. Long before the Islamic government rose to power in 1996, opium was an established source of income for Afghans trying to scratch out a living during two chaotic decades of war, drought and oppression. And the rebel Northern Alliance also participates in the opium trade, authorities say.

The profits from poppies discourage farmers from planting the wheat that Afghanistan needs to feed itself. There is, for example, the case of Abdul Ahmad, 28, a farmer from Helmand, Afghanistan, who explains the troubling arithmetic of poppies:

If he grew poppies on his farm in Helmand, he and his six children would earn about 400,000 rupees, about $6,000 a year, for their effort. If he plants wheat, as he did last year after the Taliban's ban on poppy production, he earns half that, about $3,000.

"What are Afghans to do? There is no way of earning money," Ahmad said during an interview at the Milo Shaheed Trust drug rehabilitation clinic in Quetta. "We were fighting Russians and we were fighting among each other. This was a good way to earn money. I have to feed my family."

Ahmad checked himself into the treatment center last month to break a decade-old opium addiction. He intends to return soon to Afghanistan, where he will decide on next season's crop. News that the Taliban will lift the ban on opium if the United States attacks makes the decision easy, he said. It will be opium again. This time he won't use his crop personally, he said, but he has no qualms about selling it to the outside world.

"We know what we are doing is bad for humanity, but we are dying. No one cares about us. Why should we care about others?" he asked. "We are dying. We are starving. So if we are starving, let them all starve."

Indeed, Afghanistan's drug trade has had a severe impact beyond its borders, creating a culture of drug lords, money laundering, violence, corruption, crime and the rapid spread of addiction in refugee populations.

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