Opium finances Taliban war

AFGHANISTAN

10 May 1997



by CHRISTOPHER KREMMER, Sydney Morning Herald correspondent in Kandahar.


AHMAD Gul bends down in his field of opium poppies and picks up a large mortar bomb left over from the Afghan civil war. "The Russians used these against us," he says, and then points to the flowering waist-high plants around him: "Now we use poppies against them. This is our atom bomb."


Mr Gul remembers the days when Russian soldiers controlled the checkpoint on the highway just a hundred metres from where he stands, and he still hates the invaders, who withdrew in February 1989. The 48-year-old farmer's land adjoins the highway in Kokaran district, 12 kilometres outside the provincial capital, Kandahar.


It is spring harvest time and Ahmad Gul's labourers wade into the sea of pink-and-white blooms to scratch the pods, containing a milky-white liquid which will bleed and congeal overnight for collection as raw opium in the morning.


By August, the provinces of southern Afghanistan under the control of the fundamentalist Taliban forces will have produced 40 per cent of the world's heroin supply for 1997.


The Taliban, a movement of Islamic fighters backed by Pakistan, which has fought its way to control of two-thirds of the country, has officially declared opium haram, or un-Islamic. But the Taliban leaders are well aware of the poppy fields, a riot of colour among the pot-holed roads of their dusty fiefdom, which makes a mockery of the law. Opium poppies grow even within the city limits of Kandahar.


Says labourer Issa Khan, digging mud to divert water from an irrigation trench into the poppy fields: "We have no problem with the local commanders. They don't interfere."


The farmers grow other crops - wheat, beans and pulses - as well as poppies. But with their once-elaborate system of irrigation canals largely destroyed by fighting, it is the high-value poppy which is providing farmers with the capital to rebuild.


In a few months, opium traders will arrive from Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and Russia in four-wheel drives these days, rather than on mules, to buy the raw opium. Most of it ends up in Europe, supplying 80 per cent of the lucrative heroin market there, after being processed in laboratories along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.


Mr Gul claims he is in the highly profitable drug trade as a kind of revenge. "We're doing this because they destroyed millions of Afghan lives," he says, dropping the mortar bomb, which could explode without warning in his hand. "Now we must make money to rebuild our country."


Mr Gul has 12 children, but he cares little about the scourge of addiction his products will wreak on young people in the West. Opium use among Afghans is a relatively minor problem and does not worry him.


Nor is he concerned by the enormous mark-ups the heroin traffickers make on raw opium. It is their reward for taking risks in a difficult and dangerous business, he says.


However, those dealing with the terrible consequences of the heroin trade may soon have even worse problems to face - Afghanistan is heading for a bumper opium harvest this year.


United States officials estimate last year's crop amounted to 1,230 tonnes, second only to Burma's. Ninety per cent of that production occurred in land controlled by the Taliban, who receive a 10 per cent zakat, or tax, on all agricultural production - including opium.


The average poppy grower makes about $US1,000 ($1,280) a year, by local standards a good living, which can be supplemented by other crops in the summer months.


THE Taliban's opium takings, based on US estimates, range from $US20 million to $US40 million a year. While taxing poppy cultivation, the fundamentalist regime has strictly enforced the law against growing cannabis, which produces the less addictive and less valuable hashish.


Many farmers in Helmand, Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces have switched to poppy growing as a result. Their fears that the puritanical Taliban may seek to curb the opium trade have proved unfounded.


Afghanistan, as a narcotics exporter, is supposedly subject to US sanctions. Western drug enforcement agencies suspect the Taliban of actively encouraging the narcotics trade to fund their war to rule the country.


It is an impression Taliban leaders and officials do little to dispel. The director of Kandahar's Drug Control office is a former mujahideen fighter, Mullah Abdul Rashid. In his fly-infested office, he unlocks a cabinet and tosses a one-kilogram block of dark-brown hashish onto his chipped steel desk, evidence of what he claims have been large seizures in recent months.


But he sees no point in cracking down on opium growers. "Our people are destitute," he said. "If we ban opium they'll turn against us. They'll join the other side in the war. Our strategy is to block all borders. If dealers can't get it out, the price will fall and farmers will switch to other crops."


The UN Drug Control Program will this month launch a $US10.4 million program, partly funded by Washington, to wean communities once famous for their almonds, apricots and pomegranates off opium.


UN staff plan to organise village shouras, or councils, in six districts of Kandahar and Nangarhar, offering help and credit to plant alternative crops such as peas, onions and fruit trees. The UN hopes the Taliban will promise to destroy the poppy crops of any farmer who fails to abide by the timetable for ending opium production.


"If they don't do it, we'll suspend our development efforts," says Angus Geddes, a project official. "They may end up with a half-built dam. You need some carrot and some stick."


The UN scheme aims to abolish poppy cultivation in six provinces by 1999. If it succeeds, it will be tried in Helmand province, Afghanistan's main opium region, with 25,000 hectares under poppy.


But the UN's financial incentives are inadequate to undercut the rewards of poppy cultivation - and opium producers are in the trade for money.