- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

LASHKARGAH, Afghanistan — Taliban rebels determined to keep southern Afghanistan in chaos have teamed up with drug barons against the government and its opium eradication campaign, officials say.

The campaign to destroy opium poppy fields was begun March 8 in southern Helmand, the producer of most of Afghanistan’s opium crop — which makes up nearly 90 percent of the world total — and also one of the provinces worst-hit by a Taliban-led insurgency.

“Terrorists and narcotics are very close; they’re supporting each other,” said Helmand province Gov. Muhammad Daud. “When narcotics production is up, terrorism automatically goes up.”

Lt. Col. Henry Worsley of the 3,500 British forces deployed in the province agreed. “Taliban and drugs feed each other. You cannot separate them here.”

In their final two years in power, before they were toppled in a U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, the Taliban banned opium and succeeded in drastically slashing its production to 185 tons from 3,300 tons.

Some observers say their motivation was to win international favor. Others say they wanted to push up the price of the raw ingredient of heroin.

Four years later, the Taliban rebels are willing to protect opium crops and farmers against the new administration in Kabul. The United States and other Western countries, which see opium as a source of terrorist funding, are pressuring the government led by President Hamid Karzai to eradicate the crop.

Several anonymous letters attributed to the Taliban have been distributed in the past few months in Helmand and other insurgency-infested provinces that threaten farmers with reprisals if they do not plant opium, residents said.

Some letters also offer protection against government eradication attempts.

“Taliban will try to disrupt the eradication campaign,” said the Helmand governor who has vowed to remove all the opium from his province in two months.

“Eradication will cause fighting,” said Mohammed Sardar, an official from the nongovernmental group Mercy Corps that is trying to persuade opium farmers to switch to other crops.

“Poor farmers won’t fight, but Taliban and smugglers will,” he said.

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