- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 6, 2001

NEW YORK The Taliban has been flooding Afghanistan's borders with raw opium and refined heroin, say international narcotics- control experts who are concerned that increased availability and a precipitous plunge in prices will lead to soaring drug abuse.

The Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic militia that controls the world's most fertile opium poppy fields, has apparently authorized Afghanistan's drug infrastructure to begin dumping raw and processed opiates in an effort to raise cash before the U.S.-led alliance retaliates for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Over the last week, witnesses at the main drug crossings in Pakistan, Iran and the Caucuses say they've seen a sharp spike in the amount of opium, morphine and heroin flowing out of Afghanistan via heavily armored convoys of trucks or even donkeys.

Among the waves of refugees massing near the borders with Pakistan, Iran and Tajikistan are farmers carrying recently harvested opium.

And anecdotal reports from as far away as the Balkans, London and Australia show those narcotics are already entering and altering the global distribution networks.

Afghanistan has traditionally supplied 90 percent of Western Europe's heroin, say narcotics experts, who note that the free-market laws of supply and demand rule illict trade just as surely as they do currency transactions or the price of gold.

Within Afghanistan, the price of raw opium has fallen dramatically, according to the U.N. drug office, from roughly $450 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) in early September to as little as $200 this week. Sources on the ground say hard currency and volume discounts can drive the cost even lower.

"It is clear they are trying to sell off whatever they have," said Mohammed Amirkhizi, who coordinates the Afghan program for the Vienna, Austria-based U.N. Drug Control Program (UNDCP). "But its also clear, from interdiction efforts and [studies] that they have a lot stockpiled."

Drug markets are likely to feel the flood of Taliban heroin, even if they don't usually traffic in the Afghan product.

For example, Asia's heroin comes from the Golden Triangle, most notably isolated, totalitarian Burma. But as the price of Afghan opiates fall the midlevel drug lords will have to cut their own prices to stay competitive or tap into a vein of the significantly cheaper Central Asian trade, said Robert Maginess, who advises Washington on drug policy matters.

The same is true in North America, which has been supplied by the Colombian drug cartels.

Mr. Amirkhizi said the United Nations has not yet seen the Taliban's impact in East Asia, "but I believe it is still too early."

The head of Australia's Drug and Alcohol Services, Alex Wodak, told local wire services this week that cheaper prices and higher purity would lure back users who kicked the habit or switched to cheaper highs.

"It will take some months before we see an effect," he said. "But I'm sure there will be one."

Afghanistan produced some 300 tons of raw opium last year, according to UNDCP estimates. That is a fraction of the 3,300 tons produced in 1999, before the Taliban agreed to ban the cultivation of poppies as "un-Islamic."

But no one doubts that the mullahs have been stockpiling the precious crop, which can fetch as much as $60,000 in Britain, before it is cut to half- or even quarter-purity for street distribution.

The UNDCP says the Taliban threatened not to renew their 14-month-old poppy ban, and they've have seen troubling indications that desperately poor farmers are again cultivating their fields for opium. All of which means greater supply.

It takes about 10 kilos of opium to refine a single kilo of pure heroin, using relatively simple technology and easily available chemicals. "Bathtub labs" have been uncovered in Afghanistan's infamous network of mountain caves, as well as tucked into the back of large vans and trucks.

But much of the opium is commercially refined in Turkish laboratories, an easy transshipping point through the Balkans to Western Europe.

It is not clear how closely, or whether, accused terrorist Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda organization is involved in the international drug trade.

A panel of U.N. experts told the Security Council earlier this year that, even pre-bin Laden, there was evidence that an elaborate smuggling network was using stockpiled opiates to buy arms and "finance the training of terrorists … in neighboring countries and beyond."

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