- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 27, 2001

The Taliban, facing attack by U.S. forces in the wake of the Sept. 11 assault on America, yesterday threatened to lift a ban on the cultivation of opium and encourage new plantings of the source crop for heroin.
But federal law enforcement authorities said heroin trafficking out of Afghanistan continues unabated and said 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," said Asa Hutchinson, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, adding that federal authorities believe the publicly announced ban was aimed at guaranteeing continuing profits from drug sales and to stabilize the price of opium.
"Sixty percent of the country's crop of opium has been stockpiled in recent years in an effort to drive up prices," Mr. Hutchinson said. "And there may be individuals who see heroin as a weapon to be used against the West."
Saying the production of opium was "un-Islamic," the Taliban imposed in July 2000 a ban on the cultivation of the poppy plant, from which opium is derived. Heroin is the principal illegal drug refined from opium.
The country has accounted for more than 70 percent of the global supply of opium over the past five years, including 90 percent of the heroin now being smuggled into Europe. The Taliban controls 95 percent of Afghanistan, including the country's major opium-producing areas.
Law enforcement authorities said profits from the sale of opium and heroin have been in the millions, with much of the money going directly to the Taliban in the form of fees and taxes.
Huge chunks of cash, they said, are being diverted to al Qaeda, the terrorist organization headed by Osama bin Laden, the prime suspect in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon that killed more than 6,500.
The Taliban's order to end cultivation, according to a State Department advisory released yesterday, did reduce that country's production of opium last year by 95 percent, accounting for a global supply decline of nearly two-thirds, but the department noted that the U.S. government remained concerned "over other aspects of the drug trade, including heroin production, trading and trafficking."
The report said large seizures of opiates originating in Afghanistan continued to be made in Pakistan and other neighboring countries, meaning that despite the poppy ban, drug traffickers in Afghanistan have 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, including areas east of Kabul and in the central province of Helmand.
The Helmand province, considered Afghan's bread basket, is situated along traditional smuggling routes and is the country's prime agricultural region because of an irrigation system built in the 1950s by the U.S. Agency for International Development.
The State Department, in a report released in December, said any explosion of opium production under the Taliban government would reduce agricultural land available for food crops "at the very time that Afghanistan is suffering the worst drought in a generation."
Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the U.S. government was preparing to provide more than $2 million in assistance to former poppy farmers in Afghanistan affected by the drought.
That proposal is on hold.

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