Monday, August 11, 2003

Afghanistan has re-emerged since the U.S.-led war as the world’s leading source country for opium and heroin — rapidly returning to levels of the 1990s, when it produced about 70 percent of the world’s illicit opium supply, a U.N. report says.

The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNODCCP) said opium producers in Afghanistan, primarily supplying countries in Southwest and Central Asia, Eastern and Western Europe, and throughout Africa, were moving again to recapture a heroin consumer base of 9 million abusers, two-thirds of all heroin users in the world.

The U.N. report, issued Friday, said a half-million people are involved in Afghanistan’s trafficking chain and estimated an annual income at $25 billion, despite a ban on opium production put in place by Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Under the now-defunct Taliban regime, Afghanistan controlled the vast majority of heroin sales throughout the world, focusing on Europe while netting profits of $40 million a year, much of which went to al Qaeda terrorists who hid and trained in that country.

Narcotics was the largest source of income in Afghanistan as a result of the Taliban’s decimation of the country’s economic infrastructure.

Heroin produced from opium processed in Afghanistan was transported routinely to Western Europe, Pakistan and Iran, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says, although Middle Eastern heroin traffickers continued to smuggle the drug to ethnic enclaves in the United States.

DEA officials have been concerned that Afghan heroin traffickers, with a renewed crop, may seek alliances with Colombian cartels operating in this country or even compete with them. At the time of the U.S.-led Afghanistan war, several established traffickers in that country were making inquiries about pushing into the U.S. market.

The DEA has expressed “extraordinary concern” about the U.N. antidrug office’s reports this year showing that Afghanistan has re-entered the opium and heroin business.

An abrupt decline of illicit opium-poppy cultivation was recorded in Afghanistan in 2001, after a ban imposed by the Taliban regime in its last year in power. Despite the accumulation of significant stocks of opiates during previous years of bumper harvests, the latest U.N. report noted that the beginnings of a heroin shortage became apparent on some European markets by the end of 2001.

“The absence of the usual harvest in Afghanistan in spring 2001 and the subsequent depletion of stocks pushed opium prices upwards to unprecedented levels in the country,” the report stated. “The power vacuum in Kabul caused by the aftermath of 11 September 2001 enabled farmers to replant opium poppy.

“By the time the Afghan interim administration was established and issued a strong ban on opium poppy cultivation, processing, trafficking and consumption, most opium poppy fields had already started to sprout,” the report said.

Both U.N. and U.S. authorities have said that despite government assurances that poppy fields were being destroyed, few fields were eradicated.

The DEA says the Taliban order banning the cultivation of opium as “un-Islamic” was most likely a public-relations ploy that allowed drug traffickers to stockpile supplies of opium and boost prices.

The Taliban taxed opium harvests, heroin production and drug shipments to help finance its purchases of arms and war materials, pay for terrorist training, and support the operation of Islamist extremists in neighboring countries.

Last year, the government offered Afghan farmers $500 per acre to destroy their fields, but drug processors and traffickers are believed to have given $6,400 per acre in profits for growing poppies. More than 225,000 acres are believed to be have been cultivated last year.

It is not clear what the resurgence in opium production will do to relationships between Afghan warlords and the U.S. military, which has enjoyed relative peace during the past several months. Opium production has been tightly controlled in the past by the warlords, whose militias still control much of the country.

There are concerns, however, that al Qaeda operatives have become involved in the opium trade, helping smugglers deliver their goods to Western European markets in exchange for a cut of the profits.

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