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Afghanistan: UN Highlights Long-Term Drug Threat

United Nations, 29 June 2005 (RFE/RL) -- A UN report issued today warns that opium-poppy cultivation should be considered a long-term trend in Afghanistan despite efforts by the current government in Kabul to quell it. Outside observers also say there is evidence that Afghan drug money is being used to fund international terrorism.

The World Drug Report, issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), claims that some 87 percent of opium sold in the global drug trade originates in Afghanistan.

Opium production in 2004 provided enough raw material to potentially produce about 565 tons of pure heroin. Nearly all of it came from Afghanistan, the report asserts. Myanmar (Burma) and Laos, the second- and third-largest producers, supply far less.

Inauspicious Figures

The World Drug Report examines drug trends in the years 2003-04. It says Afghanistan will dictate the size and development of the illicit world drug market for years to come.

Isobel Coleman of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations, told RFE/RL that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has few options for fighting the drug trade.

“Karzai came in as president promising that he would really work on this issue of cracking down on the drug trade, and yet he hasn’t. And I think the reason he hasn’t is because there really aren’t that many alternatives," Coleman said."It’s very destabilizing in the country to take away people’s only livelihood. And I think the Karzai government is quite cognizant of that risk and has soft-pedaled on this issue for that reason.”
“[Afghan President Hamid] Karzai came in as president promising that he would really work on this issue of cracking down on the drug trade, and yet he hasn’t. And I think the reason he hasn’t is because there really aren’t that many alternatives."

But Simone Monasebian, the head of the UNODC's New York office, said the UN has had success with "alternative crop" programs in drug-producing countries like Colombia and Peru.

There is potential, she said, for such programs to work in Afghanistan as well.

“This is something that the UN and some member states are involved in, and not only in Afghanistan, but in South America," Monasebian said. "We need to look at the success in Colombia and try to bring that to Afghanistan. And in Afghanistan, when alternative crop development has been funded properly, it has shown some good results.”

A UNODC assessment earlier this year indicated the amount of Afghan land being used for poppy cultivation has shrunk from 2004's record 131,000 hectares.

But production clearly continues. Heroin sold in Europe and elsewhere is showing higher levels of purity -- a sign that there is a sufficient and rising supply.

Funding Terrorism?

The 2005 World Drug Report does not address another worrying aspect of the Afghan drug trade: the potential link between drug money and terrorist funding.

But Antonio Maria Costa, the UNODC's executive director, has repeatedly warned that such a link exists.

Monasebian said many of the financial transactions take place when drug traffickers cross borders or pass through guarded transit posts.

“These transit posts are manned by the Taliban, or manned by other individuals involved in organized terrorist activities," Monasebian said. "And while great sums of money may not be paid with each transaction as you pass through one of these posts, the passages through these posts are quite frequent. This is one way terrorism profits from the drug industry.”

The Council on Foreign Relations' Coleman said Afghan drug lords have close ties to the so-called narco-mafia in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. She also said there is evidence Afghan drug money is being used to fund terrorist rings, local militias, and arms smugglers.

“Undoubtedly, some of the opium money is flowing to groups within Afghanistan and Pakistan who are engaged in what we can probably define as terrorist activities," Coleman said. "Is it directly going to Osama bin Laden? I am not prepared to say that, but it is certainly going through groups that have connections to arms smuggling, to local militias which are carrying out raids. We do have some clear evidence on those fronts.”

Increased Interdiction

Opiate seizures rose by a third in 2003 to reach a record high of 110 metric tons. According to the UNODC, this means law enforcement is intercepting nearly one-quarter of Afghan drugs material.

The biggest seizures of Afghan opiates were seen in neighboring Pakistan and Iran.