Heroin, Drug Warlords Reappear on Afghan Scene
EDITOR'S NOTE: Quick on the heels of Taliban defeat, starving farmers are replanting the opium poppies banned under the Islamist regime, giving rise to fears of renewed drug warlordism. Engaged in the shooting war, Washington may be turning a blind eye to a favorite income source of its allies, says Pacific News Service commentator Peter Dale Scott -- bad news for those who want to reduce global heroin production.
Within two years, Afghanistan may again be producing 2,800 or more tons of opium annually, according to U.S. and Pakistani sources, becoming again the world's chief supply source. In areas bordering Pakistan, where most of the opium is processed, prices have already plummeted.
While the Taliban effectively forbade growing opium poppies -- the raw material for heroin -- their defeat means starving farmers are hurrying to replant the one lucrative crop available to them.
This is of course bad news for those striving to reduce the scourge of heroin in the world. It also presents the risk of a return of warlordism to Afghanistan -- regional commanders and armies financed by the opium in their area, jealously refusing to relinquish such a lucrative income source to a central government. At risk is a revival of the vicious internecine feuds that took so many civilian lives in the 1990s, after the Soviet withdrawal.
With planting and other drug business already moving quickly on the ground, there has not yet been any vigorous U.S. counteroffensive to finance the post-Taliban government from healthier sources.
An October United Nations report confirmed that the Taliban successfully eliminated opium production in Afghanistan with a ban in 2000 that was almost universally enforced. The feat was enormous: before the ban, Afghanistan supplied 90 per cent of Europe's heroin. Then, Afghanistan provided 3,276 tons of opium poppies, more than half the world's output. This year's post-ban crop, however, was a small 185 tons, over 90 percent of it from provinces under the control of America's allies the Northern Alliance.
Those skeptical about Mullah Omar's motives for the ban speculated that the Taliban held substantial reserves of processed opium and wished to drive up prices. The same sources predicted that a dumping of Taliban opium into the world market would follow the U.S. attack. This did not happen.
Indeed, the U.N. report noted that the dramatic reduction in Afghan opium production was not offset by increases in other countries. The stage was set for the biggest blow to global heroin trafficking since the Communist crackdown in China after World War II.
However, what would have been the world's largest curtailment of opium production in half a century will now apparently be reversed. As the Taliban was driven or fled from province after province, reports indicated farmers were replanting wheat fields with opium poppies.
Another dark indicator of a coming boom is the recent and unexpected release from a Pakistani jail of Ayub Afridi, once the Khyber Pass kingpin for a network of Pashtun drug warlords in Nangarhar Province. Some have interpreted his release as a boost to his former contacts such as Haji Abdul Qadir, Haji Mohammed Zaman and Hazrat Ali, who, according to the Asia Times Daily in Hong Kong, used to be the biggest heroin and opium mafia in Afghanistan's Pashtun belt.
Haji Abdul Qadir is now the political leader in Nangarhar Province, west of Khyber Pass, while Hazrat Ali and Haji Mohammed Zaman are leading the Afghan ground attack against the al Qaeda holdouts in the nearby Tora Bora caves.
The lack of U.S. comment and nearly invisible reporting on these developments are ominous signs that Washington may turn a blind eye as its former proteges and current allies finance themselves once again with drug traffic.
Yet another sign is active disinformation by officials of the Bush administration.
The Taliban's drastic ongoing reduction in opium cultivation was ignored, and indeed misrepresented, by CIA Director George Tenet in his February report to Congress, in a speech that threatened retaliatory strikes against the Taliban. "Production in Afghanistan has been exploding, accounting for 72 percent of illicit global opium production in 2000," Tenet said. He added that "The Taliban regime in Afghanistan... encourages and profits from the drug trade."
This was two months after the first indications on the ground that the Taliban interdict was being enforced.
In the l980s, U.S. officials ignored heroin trafficking in Afghanistan by its allies, the mujahideen. As we move into 2002, it appears that situation is being recreated.
Peter Dale Scott is a former Canadian diplomat and professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and has authored numerous books on drugs and U.S. foreign policy.