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Afghanistan: Analysts Ponder Why Taliban Banned Poppy Cultivation

  • Andrew Tully

Almost a year ago, the Taliban militia, which rules most of Afghanistan, decreed a ban on production of the opium poppy that can be made into heroin. Recently, the militia announced that the growers had obeyed the edict. A group of analysts met in Washington on June 13 to discuss drug trafficking in the region and to explore why the ban was imposed.

Washington, 14 June 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Analysts specializing in Central Asia struggled with questions on June 13 about why the Taliban militia banned production of the opium poppy in most of Afghanistan.

The questions were raised at a symposium about whether the U.S. and the United Nations are enjoying any success in their drug-fighting programs in Central Asia and Afghanistan. The forum was sponsored by the Open Society Institute (OSI), a private policy research facility with offices around the world.

Much of the discussion focused on last year's decision by the Taliban, which controls most of Afghanistan, to ban the production of opium poppy. The militia announced recently that virtually all the country's growers had heeded the ban. That would mean that the source of the world's heroin has abruptly shrunk by 75 percent.

Coinciding with the OSI forum on Wednesday, "The New York Times" published an article crediting the UN Drug Control Program with persuading the Taliban to impose the ban. It also raised the possibility that the nations of Central Asia, as well as Myanmar and Pakistan, may step in to fill the poppy void left by Afghanistan.

Pino Arlacchi, the director of the Vienna-based UN program, told the newspaper that he believes Central Asia is best suited for poppy production.

At the OSI discussion, some analysts expressed concern about the motives of the Taliban's leadership in imposing the ban. One was Nancy Lubin, president of JNA Associates, a research and consulting firm specializing in Central Asia.

Lubin noted that until 1999, opium production was high in Afghanistan. She and other speakers said they believed that the Taliban at least acquiesced in the production -- until last year. And Lubin wondered whether the militia is not harboring a sinister, ulterior motive in forbidding further poppy production.

"Was that an impact of our own Western programs, or is something else going on here? It doesn't seem to make sense to a lot of people that after expanding the crop so dramatically, suddenly the Taliban, because of Western pressure, would suddenly turn around and eradicate the crop."

Lubin said some observers suspect that the Taliban's leaders simply want to temporarily reduce the supply of heroin and therefore stimulate demand -- and higher prices. Arlacchi notes that the price of heroin has climbed sevenfold.

Another participant at Wednesday's forum was Vincent McClean, the director of the UN drug program's New York office. He said the agency is reluctant to make early claims of victory for any of its programs, because the problem could easily recur in the long term. But he called the Taliban's ban on opium production "extremely encouraging."

McClean said the UN began talks with the Taliban in 1997, hoping to persuade it to crack down on poppy production. He said he does not know for certain, but he believes the Taliban at that time at least permitted the production of opium poppy, if it did not directly encourage it. He also said he does not know for certain whether UN pressure contributed to the militia's ban on poppy production in 2000.

"Do we know for certain that this was a major factor in the Taliban decision -- in the Taliban edict of 27 July last year to ban opium? We don't. But we think that the advocacy and the dialogue played quite an important part in that decision."

Another question Lubin raised was whether the Western governments and the UN are properly spending the money they send to Central Asia to fight drugs. She said it is common for young men in the region to pay large bribes to become police officers, border guards, and even students at police academies. According to Lubin, it is an investment with generous returns once they begin dealing with drug smugglers and other criminals.

"Are we in fact helping honest governments to address this problem [drug smuggling] head-on? Or are we maybe helping one cartel [corrupt police] to eradicate another?"