- The Washington Times - Friday, October 10, 2003

DARA NOOR, Afghanistan — On a steep mountain road ahead of a blind curve, a Red Cross worker dies at the hands of an unknown attacker. Just around the bend lies the possible reason: an opium poppy field.

Afghanistan’s $1.2 billion drug trade is blooming, bringing violence that is driving away aid groups while Islamic extremists and warlords apparently profit.

The agencies that monitor the pulse of conflict zones point to a rise in ambushes and execution-style slayings that coincide with the southeast’s autumn harvest of the opium-producing flowers, also the source of heroin.

“It’s absolutely true that security is worse in places where people are growing poppies,” said Diane Johnson, Afghanistan program director for Mercy Corps. She said the Portland, Ore., organization has suspended operations indefinitely in the country, but Margaret Larson, a spokeswoman in Portland, said that was not the case.

A member of the group was killed Aug. 7.

“Narco-terrorism” has become an increasingly entrenched factor in the violence that’s meant to keep southern and eastern Afghanistan — a key opium poppy region — off-limits to outside assistance, said Paul Barker, country director for the charity CARE.

“The revenue from the poppy trade in Afghanistan is more than all the humanitarian aid combined,” he said.

Other countries have committed roughly $500 million to rebuild this central Asian nation of dusty, gasp-inducing deserts and mountains. Poppy revenue brought in $1.2 billion last year, according to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan.

About 90 international relief groups operate in Afghanistan, but most have curtailed drilling wells, vaccinating children and rebuilding school systems in the deadly southeast.

The September edition of CARE’s policy brief — which other relief groups follow closely — said armed attacks on aid workers have jumped from one a month to one every two days since September 2002.

Half the country’s 32 provinces — mostly in the south — are too risky to enter. “There are all sorts of movements to keep Afghanistan unstable,” said Mr. Barker, the CARE official.

Local authorities generally blame all violence on the Taliban regime, ousted by a U.S.-led force two years ago, but a confounding array of agendas are in play.

“It’s impossible to separate out what’s factional fighting, what’s Taliban activity and what’s drug trafficking,” said Miss Johnson. “We haven’t seen this type of targeting [of aid workers] in the 16 years we’ve been here.”

In March, at the height of the poppy season’s spring harvest, gunmen attacked a three-vehicle convoy at a blind curve on a rocky mountain road near Dara Noor, a village 60 miles north of Kandahar and a prime poppy region. The attackers killed Ricardo Munguia, 39, a water engineer from El Salvador working for the Red Cross. He was the first foreign-aid worker to die in Afghanistan since the Taliban’s ouster.

Around a bend is a large poppy field where men, women and children recently harvested the autumn crop of the opiate-soaked bulbs that emerge after the plants burst into flower. They greeted two reporters as potential customers.

Moments later, a taxi driver scolded the reporters for lingering in an area in which a Taliban convoy had passed in recent days.

Two weeks ago, gunmen ambushed a pickup truck in southern Afghanistan and fatally shot seven bodyguards of the governor of Helmand province in the Mir Mundo area, 50 miles northwest of Kandahar.

The violence has grown with poppy production in Afghanistan, which produced 12 percent of the world’s opium in 2001 and 76 percent last year.

The fact that drug-trafficking revenue has soared since the U.S. push into Afghanistan has put the Bush administration on the defensive.

“You ask what we’re going to do and the answer is, ‘I don’t really know,’” Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said recently.

A U.S.-led force toppled the Taliban for harboring al Qaeda, the terrorist group that engineered the September 11 suicide attacks with hijacked jetliners in the United States. A NATO force has focused on maintaining security in Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital. Humanitarian agencies want to see the force spread into the country’s violent south and east.

A Moscow-backed government ruled Afghanistan for a decade before Soviet troops withdrew in 1989, leaving warlords to fight for power. The Taliban won control of most of the country to put an end to the factional bloodletting, but then imposed a harsh form of Islamic rule.

The impact the extremist militia had on opium production is in dispute.

Though the Taliban stopped many farmers from growing the crop — some of whom were later killed by their financiers — there were numerous reports that no action was taken against people who bought, sold or stockpiled opium, said Mohammed Amirkhizi, the Afghan representative of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

Some contend the Taliban cut production to drive up heroin prices worldwide. However, at the time, the U.N. drug-control office in neighboring Pakistan said there was no evidence of stockpiling by the Taliban movement, though some commanders might be doing it.

Mr. Amirkhizi said the country’s transitional government mounted what it said was a successful attempt to eradicate opium production last year, but there’s been no independent confirmation of results.

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