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Afghanistan: Taliban Poppy Ban Good News For Pakistan

  • Charles Recknagel

The Taliban's banning of opium poppy cultivation could disrupt large-scale regional smuggling of Afghan opium and heroin through Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia. As RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports, that would be good news for Pakistan, which has eradicated its own poppy growing areas but has become a major transit country for Afghan drugs moving to markets in the Gulf and Europe.

Islamabad, 23 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Pakistan, like the rest of Afghanistan's neighbors, has a serious drug problem.

The flow of cheap opium and heroin out of Afghanistan during the past decade has combined with high unemployment to create a growing population of hardcore addicts that Western drug officials estimate today at some two million. The estimate does not include another one to two million casual users who smoke opiates as well as softer drugs like hashish.

The cheap drugs and large addict population are the by-products of the hundreds of tons of opium, morphine, and heroin which smugglers truck every year from Afghanistan into Pakistan, then west across the Iranian border toward the Gulf and Europe. At the same time, drugs also go south to Pakistan's coast, where they are transported by dhows (wooden sailboats) to cargo ships waiting offshore.

UN drug experts say it is impossible to determine the quantities of drugs passing through Pakistan, but that some idea can be gained from the size of seizures.

Bernard Frahi, head of the UN Drug Control Program's, UNDCP, regional office in Islamabad, says that over the last half decade, Pakistani security forces have seized an average of seven metric tons of opium a year. In the same time, he says, seizures of heroin and morphine have grown from five metric tons to 10 tons.

"Pakistan managed to make big seizures over the last years. That is an average of seven tons in the period of 1995 to 1997 with regard to opium and an average of five metric tons of morphine and heroin during the same period. It was less than Iran but definitely more than even the Central Asian states altogether."

Frahi says Iran makes some 55 percent of all the regional seizures of Afghan drugs, Pakistan some 30 percent and the Central Asian states some 15 percent.

The flow of drugs through Pakistan comes as Islamabad has managed in recent years to rid itself of almost all of the country's own opium poppy cultivation after decades of being one of the world's major producers.

During the 1990s Pakistan made a concentrated effort to eliminate opium cultivation along its Afghan border. Western donors, particularly the U.S. and Britain, provided some $100 million for the program, which focused on building roads into the remote growing areas of Pashtun tribes in the Northwest Frontier Province. The roads served a dual function: they increased the farmers' access to markets for alternative crops, like wheat, and at the same time made it easier for the security forces to patrol the areas.

Frahi says that as a result of the programs, Pakistan can now be considered a non-opium-growing country.

"Pakistan has succeeded over the last 15 years to move from a producer country to a non-producer country. Pakistan in about 1979 had a production of about 800 tons of opium, [but] Pakistan last year became a poppy-free country."

The UNDCP estimates that Pakistan's tribal areas produced only two tons of opium in 1999 and production today is considered so sporadic as to be negligible.

But if Pakistan has won the war against its own opium producers, it is far from stemming the flow of Afghan drugs through the country.

So far, the battle has unequally pitted a small anti-narcotics force against teams of heavily armed and fast-moving drug runners. Pakistani drug officials say the smugglers prefer large convoys, operating mostly at night with four-wheel-drive vehicles. The drivers rely on night-vision goggles and communicate with the rest of the convoy on secure high-frequency radios, earning some $35 for a night's work. The convoy's gunmen, equipped with rocket launchers, machine guns, and assault rifles, get $12 -- considered good wages on the local market.

The anti-narcotics force is too small to patrol the long border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The force for all the eastern province of Baluchistan, which borders Iran, numbers 700 men. It must not only contend with the traffickers, but also with a local tribal population which has a long history of smuggling and a contentious relationship with the government.

Western diplomats say the security forces and drug runners have long since reached an unwritten agreement to limit the stakes in their contest. The narcotics forces ambush convoys but there are few casualties and few arrests. The diplomats say the traffickers are ready to pay the price of occasionally losing a shipment, while the security forces are happy to make a seizure.

That makes Pakistan's battle with Afghan drug smugglers very different from the one in Iran. Tehran has deployed some 100,000 troops and members of the Revolutionary Guards along its Afghan border, where they fight a low-level war with the traffickers. Over the past 10 years, some 3,000 Iranian security force members have been killed. And Iran has sought to seal off the easiest smuggling routes across its border with barriers and vehicle traps.

Drug experts say Pakistan, a poorer country, has no plans for similarly controlling its Afghan border. Such an effort would require large amounts of foreign assistance, something unlikely to come after the already sizable Western aid for eradicating Pakistan's own poppy cultivation last decade.

Pakistan's best hope for ridding itself of its drug problem may lie with the Taliban's recent decision to ban cultivation on the 90 percent of Afghanistan it controls. UNDCP officials have confirmed that the ban, issued by Taliban leader Mullah Omar last summer, has prevented Afghan farmers from planting most of their poppy fields for the growing season.

Drug experts are uncertain about the Taliban's motives and how long the ban will last. The militia itself has made no statements beyond saying the ban is permanent.

The final answer as to whether the Taliban has eliminated poppy growing may only be known after several more growing seasons pass. Drug experts say that in the meantime traffickers have sufficiently large stockpiles of opium in Afghanistan to assure the flow of narcotics will continue for years to come.