Monday, November 26, 2001

U.S. officials are exploring ways to prevent a surge in opium cultivation in Afghanistan, once the world’s leading producer, now that the Taliban’s control is crumbling.
The challenge is persuading the factions likely to govern to fight opium production and trafficking, when these groups in the past have shown little inclination to do that.
U.S. counternarcotics officials want to make drug-fighting a condition for receiving international humanitarian aid. They expect some of the assistance will include programs to encourage Afghan farmers to give up opium, the raw material for heroin, in favor of wheat and other legal crops.
Representatives of U.S. anti-drug agencies have met to begin developing a counterdrug plan. With efforts under way to form a new multiethnic government in Afghanistan, the opium issue is attracting the attention of leading Bush administration officials.
U.S. policy-makers had limited interest in it before the September 11 attacks. Afghan opium is sold mostly in Europe and Asia. It accounts for only a tiny fraction of the heroin sold in the United States, most of which is from Latin America.
After September 11, Afghan opium was seen in a new light: as an important moneymaker for the Taliban militia that harbored Osama bin Laden, the suspected mastermind of the attacks.
Afghan opium production surged after the Taliban took control of most of the country in 1996 and reached a peak of 4,030 U.S. tons last year, according to State Department statistics. That accounted for 72 percent of the world market.
Citing Islamic principles, the Taliban banned opium, virtually eliminating it from its territory this year. U.S. officials suspect the Taliban was trying to reduce the opium supply to boost the price of existing stockpiles.
“The farmers are poor people, and they need money, and the opium crop is a profitable crop for them,” said Mohammed Amirkhizi, an official of the U.N. Drug Control Program in Vienna, Austria.
“If the conditions remain in a way that no one is enforcing the noncultivation of illicit drugs in Afghanistan, then the farmers will go back to cultivating,” he said.
Asa Hutchinson, the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said it is too early to tell how cooperative the Northern Alliance will be in the future.
Mr. Hutchinson said the DEA has been working with Afghanistan’s neighbors, including Pakistan, to help block the movement of Afghan opium through their territory.

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