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Afghanistan: Kabul Continues To Struggle With Poppy Cultivation, Drug Trade

  • Ron Synovitz

The United Nations has issued a report out of Vienna that presents some of its latest information on drug production and abuse in Afghanistan. The release is among a series of UN events today that commemorate the 15th anniversary of an international declaration on drug abuse and trafficking. In Kabul, the UN drug-control office is using the anniversary to talk in general terms about the smuggling of Afghan-grown opiates. But RFE/RL reports that UN officials are now hesitant to discuss some ministers in the new Transitional Authority who allegedly have links to international drug-smuggling operations.

Kabul, 26 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations and the Afghan government today jointly sponsored a drug-awareness program at Kabul University to mark the International Day Against Drug Abuse and Trafficking. Transitional Authority President Hamid Karzai used the event to encourage Afghan farmers to stop growing one of their most lucrative crops, the opium poppy flowers that are used to produce heroin. "We have to eradicate the cultivation of poppies and the production of narcotics in Afghanistan out of our national interest. The agriculture of Afghanistan is being destroyed [by the illegal drug trade]. The gardens and fruits that Afghanistan is famous for across the world will be destroyed. Our wheat production will be destroyed. And the money made by poppy cultivation is not enough to make our farmers rich," Karzai said.

While many Afghan poppy farmers see the practice as one that can earn them more money than traditional food crops, a report released today out of Vienna by the United Nations drug-control office shows that it is the drug traffickers who are taking the vast majority of the profits.

The UN report estimates that about $25 billion has been spent around the world annually in recent years by the users of heroin and other opiates that originate in Afghanistan.

Out of that $25 billion, the UN says Afghan opium farmers received a total of only $180 million for their crops in 1999. Earnings for the Afghan farmers fell to $90 million in 2000. The UN office says both 1999 and 2000 were record years for Afghan opium harvests.

Karzai stressed these findings today as he urged Afghanistan's farmers to grow crops other than opium poppies. "Poppy farming will make our farmers poor because it will destroy the fertility of their land. The real earnings go to the smugglers and mafia who are outside of Afghanistan. This money is collected [on the black market] in America and in Europe and in the neighboring countries of Afghanistan. The adverse effects and a shameful reputation is what remains for Afghanistan," Karzai said.

Indeed, the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention estimates that Afghanistan produces 75 percent of the world's opium. And despite poppy-eradication programs conducted jointly earlier this year by the Afghan government and foreign agencies, the UN's preassessment surveys say that Afghan poppy fields this year are expected to yield between 1,900 and 2,700 tons of opium. That level of cultivation is equal to the production levels reached in Afghanistan during the mid-1990s.

International drug-control experts say it is the drug-smuggling operations that drive Afghanistan's opium farming. But ironically, neither Karzai nor UN officials are discussing the issue of those ministers in the new Transitional Authority who allegedly have links to the international drug-smuggling trade.

Bernard Frahi, the head of the UN drug-control office in Kabul, told journalists yesterday that he had been instructed not to mention the specific names of any Transitional Authority officials who are known to be involved in the drug trade. "It's not for us, the UN, to make any comment about the authorities who have been appointed within the government. What is important for the international community is to ensure that the so-called warlords will also be approached in order to ensure that whatever is related to drug trafficking is put to an end. We know that Afghanistan is [a country where], unfortunately, some permanent figures in some areas have been involved in, or encouraged, drug trafficking in a certain way," Frahi said.

One of the three deputy chiefs of the Transitional Authority named by Karzai last week, Nangahar Province head Haji Abdul Qadir, has publicly announced his support for opium-poppy cultivation.

Qadir's appointment illuminates the difficulties that are faced by the international organizations that worked with Karzai's interim administration earlier this year in an attempt to eradicate poppy crops. Nangahar Province has Jalalabad as its capital and is bordered to the east and the south by Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.

Nangahar was one of the focal points of this year's poppy-eradication programs, and violence broke out when authorities attempted to implement the plan. Nangahar also contains the roads that lead directly to the infamous Khyber Pass, an overland smuggling route for heroin and opium that passes between Pakistan's Safed and Kashmund mountain ranges.

The Afghan-Pakistan border crossing at the Khyber Pass is near the Afghan town of Torkhajm. Local officials in Torkhajm, as well as many of the Afghan customs officers on the border there, are members of the ethnic Pashtun Afridi clan, one of the independent tribes that reside along both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border.

The Afridis earned a fierce reputation from their 19th-century battle victories against British troops near the Khyber Pass. Today, the Afridis are known by most Afghans to be heavily involved in poppy farming, the practice that forms the background of Nangahar's overall economic production.

While the main export routes into Pakistan pass through Kandahar and Nangahar, they also include the porous borders of Paktia Province where U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition forces are continuing operations against suspected Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Haji Abdul Qadir is not the only member of the Afghan Transitional Authority who has been linked to Afghanistan's drug trade.

Earlier reports from the UN drug-control office about Afghan drug exports suggest that more than one of the former Northern Alliance factions now in the Transitional Authority has profited by heroin smuggling.

The UN studies have linked some of the biggest heroin-smuggling operations to Afghanistan's rival warlords in the north, former mujahedin commanders who now have representatives within the Afghan government and whose fighters control the export routs to Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah was asked by RFE/RL on comments on the allegations that his Jamiat-i-Islami faction of the former Northern Alliance has profited from drug smuggling. Abdullah responded by saying the UN reports were full of lies.

A statement from the UN drug-control office today warns that drug trafficking continues to be a serious problem inside Afghanistan. The UN office is preparing to launch a $2 million program to establish an anti-drug department within the police forces of Kabul and other key provinces.

The UN office also says it is determined to support other UN agencies, nongovernmental offices, and international financial institutions to address the complex issues surrounding poppy cultivation and drug smuggling across Afghanistan.