- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 3, 2001

Drug shipments out of Afghanistan have increased by 400 percent since the attacks last month on America in what the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration believes is an effort by the ruling Taliban to raise cash or to empty warehouses glutted with opium.

"The outflow of opium has continued since the Sept. 11 attacks, and seizures have multiplied fourfold," said DEA Administrator Asa Hutchinson. "They may simply be generating cash or trying to empty out their warehouses for other reasons."

Over the past five years under the Taliban regime, Afghanistan has accounted for more than 70 percent of the global supply of opium, the source crop for heroin. About 90 percent of the heroin sold in Europe is processed, mainly in Turkey, from opium produced in Afghanistan.

Terrorists operating out of Afghanistan, many of whom have direct ties to the opium trade, have been named as the prime suspects in the Sept. 11 suicide attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed almost 6,000 people. The Taliban regime controls 95 percent of Afghanistan, including the country's major opium-producing areas.

"Terrorism and drug trafficking are entwined," Mr. Hutchinson said. "One generates money, the other needs money, and both involve the extraordinary use of violence. They feed on each other."

Mr. Hutchinson said opium sales by the Taliban generate between $10 million and $40 million annually, and that federal law enforcement authorities and others believe that some of the cash has been diverted to terrorists operating in that country, including accused mastermind Osama bin Laden and the terrorist network he founded known as al Qaeda.

Last week, the Taliban anticipating military action by U.S. forces in the wake of the New York and Washington attacks publicly threatened to lift a ban on the cultivation of opium and encourage new plantings of the crop. But federal law enforcement authorities said heroin trafficking out of Afghanistan continued unabated and the ban, announced last year, had never been more than a public relations ploy.

"Despite the Taliban's public relations commitment, there has not been any reduction of heroin trafficking or in the amount of heroin coming out of Afghanistan," Mr. Hutchinson said in an interview last week, adding that federal authorities believed the ban was aimed at guaranteeing continuing profits from drug sales and to stabilize the price of opium.

He said 60 percent of the country's crop of opium had been stockpiled in recent years in an effort to drive up prices.

Saying the production of opium was "un-Islamic," the Taliban in July 2000 imposed a ban on the cultivation of the crop. The order, according to a State Department advisory released last week, reduced that country's opium production by 95 percent, accounting for a global supply decline of nearly two-thirds.

But, the department said, the U.S. government remained concerned "over other aspects of the drug trade, including heroin production, trading and trafficking." It said large seizures of opium originating in Afghanistan continued to be made in Pakistan and other neighboring countries, meaning that despite the ban, Afghan drug smugglers had been able to draw on stockpiles of opium produced over the past several years.

"The Taliban has derived revenue from the drug trade in the past, and we have no evidence indicating that this has stopped," the advisory said.

An April report by the United Nations accused the Taliban of selling opium and heroin to finance its war against northern rebels and to train terrorists.

The report said the Taliban ban on poppy cultivation allowed the government to stockpile opium to keep the price of the product from plummeting. During the ban, the cost of a kilogram of opium went from about $30 to $500, authorities said, with the Taliban collecting a 10 percent tax on each kilogram sold.

The U.N. report also said it was essential to examine Afghanistan's illicit heroin trade because drug money was being used to buy weapons and "finance the training of terrorists and support the operations of extremists in neighboring countries and beyond."

With the planting season in Afghanistan beginning in two weeks, authorities believe any order by the Taliban to begin cultivation would spur huge crop increases in several regions of the country.

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