Prague, 14 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Drug control officials hope today's talks between UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and the leader of the Taliban will enable them to return to Afghanistan, where rampant opium poppy cultivation is feeding half the world's trade in heroin. The meeting, the first between a UN special envoy and the Taliban's reclusive spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, is due to focus on defusing tensions between Iran and Afghanistan.
But the envoy will also be seeking security guarantees from the Taliban to permit international workers to return to Afghanistan after their evacuation two months ago following the murder of a UN military advisor in Kabul.
The advisor, Carmine Calo, was shot by gunmen in apparent retaliation for a U.S. missile attack on alleged terrorist camps in Afghanistan. In protest, the United Nations withdrew its personnel and placed a travel ban on territories the Taliban controls. The ban has been waved for Brahimi's visit.
Sandro Tucci, the spokesman for the UN Drug Control Program based in Vienna, says getting international drug monitors back into Afghanistan is a top priority.
"My understanding is that the envoy is going there to assess the security situation and therefore the possibility, eventually, that the international workers might return to Afghanistan after the massive evacuation of August, 1998. We are particularly interested because we have ongoing projects in Afghanistan which are, obviously, practically at a halt because the international workers have been withdrawn."
Tucci says the timing is pressing because Afghan farmers are preparing for a new growing season and choosing now whether to plant opium poppies or alternative crops. The only brake on poppy cultivation to date has been a $16 million UN effort to persuade farmers to grow food instead of poppies and to urge the Taliban to crack down on the opium trade.
The vast majority -- 96 percent -- of Afghanistan's poppy fields are in territory controlled by the Taliban, which in recent months has brought all but five percent of the country under its rule.
So far, the UN efforts have received better cooperation from the weather than from the militia in limiting opium poppy production.
Drug control monitors recently reported that the harvest for 1998 was reduced due to a growing season shorter than usual. Opium poppy production in Afghanistan was an estimated 2,100 metric tons -- 25 percent less than the harvest last year.
But Tucci says that at the same time the amount of land given over to poppy cultivation increased by nine percent as the crop spread to two more provinces.
"The facts which have been established by our annual opium poppy survey prove that there is ... a decrease of total opium output for the season 1997-1998 which is however due to very poor weather conditions. But there is an increase in total area of cultivation by nine percent ... therefore ... the situation has deteriorated with respect to 1997."
Last week, the Taliban signaled that it may regard opium poppy cultivation as a valuable bargaining chip in its bid for international recognition as Afghanistan's government.
Mullah Omar said that the Taliban would eradicate drug cultivation in Afghanistan if it is given Afghanistan's seat in the UN General Assembly. That seat currently still belongs to the government the Taliban ousted from Kabul two years ago, headed by President Burhanuddin Rabbani.
The United Nations so far has made no response to Omar's offer.
Meanwhile, drug officials say that high regional tensions over the militia's recent military successes may have made conditions for Afghan smugglers more difficult than they were six months ago.
Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors are on alert following the militia's capture of the northern opposition stronghold of Mazar-e-Sharif near the Uzbek border in August. And Iran has massed hundreds of thousands of troops on Afghanistan's western border over the killing of nine of its diplomats as the stronghold fell.
The state of alert along the northern and western borders may be the cause of what drug officials say is a sudden glut of raw opium within Afghanistan itself. Prices for raw opium have dropped as smugglers apparently wait or turn to alternative routes through Pakistan.
Drug officials say Afghanistan today is the largest producer of opium poppies in the world, with some 1.4 million people engaged in their cultivation. The annual poppy harvest brings farmers alone some $69 million for the raw wet opium they sell to traffickers.
How much of the raw opium is refined into more expensive drugs before it is finally exported from the Taliban-controlled territories is not precisely known. But drug officials say that seizures from smugglers show that considerable amounts are refined into a morphine base or heroin within Afghanistan or along its border regions.
The UN Drug Control office says 80 percent of the heroin reaching Europe, and 20 percent of that reaching the United States, now comes from Afghan poppies. A kilo of heroin currently sells for some $300,000 in the streets of Europe.