October 1, 2001 - Evidence suggests Afghan farmers have resumed poppy cultivation since the start of the bombing campaign and that some of the Taliban's vast stockpile of opium is being released on to the international market.
Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers have reaffirmed a June 2000 ban on poppy cultivation in areas under their control, easing fears of a resurgence in opium production this year. The announcement was made in a radio broadcast as Afghan farmers prepared their fields for winter crops, the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs stated on October 23.
But other evidence points to the Taliban actively using opium as a weapon against the West. Intelligence services monitoring the price of opium in Kandahar and Jalalabad, and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, said it had dropped since the September 11 suicide attacks on the U.S. to $100-200 a kilogram (2.2lb) from $400. On the day before the terrorist attacks opium was selling in the markets of Afghanistan for as much as $700 a kilo, the highest level for almost a decade. Since Afghan opium accounts for about 70% of the world’s heroin production, western countries now fear that they could soon face a flood of cheap Afghan heroin.
U.S. intelligence officers, aware that taxes on farmers and traders are a major source of revenue for the Taliban, are looking closely at the fact that drug money may have contributed to the financing of the September 11 attacks.
During the civil war which followed the Soviet pull-out in 1989, Afghanistan greatly increased its cultivation of opium. In the decade to 1999 the country increased production four-fold, from about 1,200 tonnes to an estimated 4,600 tonnes. But by June 2000, in a bid for respectability, the Taliban had started to work with the UN Drug Control Program (UNDCP), and banned the growing of opium. The ban slashed this year’s harvest to a mere 185 tonnes, the lowest level in living memory and a 95% drop on the previous year. All that ended after the terrorist onslaught on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, when the Taliban stopped co-operating with the UN.
Following the October 7 commencement of the American-led bombing campaign -- particularly around Kandahar, an important opium-growing region -- the UNDCP has warned that Afghan farmers are resuming poppy cultivation and the Taliban is releasing on to the international market some of the vast stockpile of opium which has been built up during a series of bumper harvests.
UN officials believe that 2,800 tonnes of opium, convertible into 280 tonnes of heroin, is in the hands of the Taliban, the al-Qaeda network of militant Islamists, and other Afghan and Pakistani drug lords.
It takes a year to 18 months for the opium-heroin base to work its way through the middlemen and laboratories where it is purified and then diluted, packaged in small doses, and sold to addicts.
On the streets of London the wholesale price of heroin is $15,000 to $20,000 a kilogram, or about $100 a gram. In France, the price of a gram of heroin is $28 to $42. In the Netherlands a gram sells for $75, and in Sweden -- which has more drug users than other Scandinavian countries -- the price of a gram has remained steady at $80 since the 1980s. In Spain, neither Madrid nor Barcelona have seen changes in price or availability since September 11, said Javier Hernandez, a spokesman for the National Drug Plan. He believes that the amount of heroin consumed in Spain has dropped by half in the last five years thanks to methadone and other treatments, but said street prices of about $58 a gram had remained steady.
The Taliban probably has several motives for releasing the stockpile now. Possibly they are selling off opium to buy weapons, or to build up their supply of hard currency. They may also want to compound the social problems of the western governments which are now their enemies. Whatever the motive, the risks for Western youth are grave.
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