Afghanistan has become the world's leading producer of opium -- almost all of it from poppies cultivated in areas controlled by the ruling Taliban militia. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with an international drug expert recently returned from Afghanistan who describes the militia's complex relationship with the opium business.
Prague, 25 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Alain Labrousse is an expert with the Paris-based Observatoire Geopolitique des Drogues (Geopolitical Observatory for Drugs), a research institute that closely tracks the production and flow of narcotics around the world.
This month, he spent several weeks in the region of Jalalabad, a stronghold of the Taliban in eastern Afghanistan and one of the main opium poppy-growing areas in the country.
Our correspondent asked Labrousse to describe his impressions of the drug trade in Afghanistan and the Taliban's often apparently contradictory positions toward it. The militia taxes poppy cultivation, and many drug experts say it permits or abets drug smuggling to earn money for weaponry to pursue Afghanistan's civil war. But it also occasionally issues directives for farmers to reduce poppy cultivation and has banned the use of drugs by Afghans.
Labrousse says that by his organization's estimate, the Taliban earns some $100 million a year from taxes on cultivation and fees levied on refining laboratories and drug smugglers. He says the Taliban's tax on farmers is about 10 percent, while fees on refiners and transporters goes up to some 20 percent.
But Labrousse says these earnings, while substantial, are not enough to make the Taliban enthusiastic about the commerce that generates them. Instead, he says, the trade continues because of a complicated power balance between the Taliban and the tribes involved in the trade -- and because there are no better economic alternatives.
The drug expert says that in the Jalalabad area, the poppy harvest last year was 40 percent higher than the year before, thanks to good weather conditions. The soaring production brought the Taliban more tax revenues but also apparently caused it some worry. The militia's reaction was to ask farmers this growing season to try to cut back poppy cultivation by 30 percent and grow more food crops instead. Alain Labrousse says:
"The Taliban has published some directives asking people to reduce by 30 percent [their production]. And what I observed in talking to people is that some accepted that and they reduced by 20 or 30 percent and sometimes ... they ploughed [over] the poppy -- because in February it is just coming out of the soil -- and sowed some wheat."
But he says that while some people complied with the directives, others, particularly members of tribes that make much of their livelihood from the opium business, refused.
"Other people, other tribes, refused, and the Taliban did not do anything because the tribes are well armed and if they are reluctant then the Taliban themselves can't do anything. So, it is expected there will be some reduction but [not enough] to compensate for the increase last year."
Labrousse says tribes that are heavily involved in the drug business are of the Pashtun ethnic group, which is also the social base of the Taliban. He says the various Pashtun groups accepted the Taliban movement because it brought peace to them after years of factional fighting between rival commanders in the wake of the Soviet-Afghan war. But the tribes remain to some extent autonomous.
"The tribes have an autonomous activity or status vis a vis the Taliban. The Taliban always have to negotiate with the head, or graybeard as they say, of the tribe. The Taliban are of the same origin but they don't dictate their law to the tribes. The tribes accepted the Taliban because with them there was peace ... but it does not mean that they are following all the Taliban [directives]."
Labrousse says that if there were other economic alternatives, the Taliban and most Afghans involved in the drug trade would turn away from it. Such alternatives -- which would have to come from foreign investment -- do not currently exist. The Taliban, which rules 90 percent of Afghanistan, is not recognized by the UN and is under sanctions intended to force it to hand over suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.
Meanwhile, Labrousse says the growth of the drug trade could change Afghan society. He found that some Afghan farmers -- who until now have only cultivated opium poppies -- are also performing the next step of refining their harvest into morphine to increase its value. That shift could make harder drugs more available within Afghanistan itself. Previously, refining was only done by laboratories located near Afghanistan's borders, from which the drugs move directly to Mideastern and Western markets through Iran, Pakistan, and Central Asia.
Labrousse says there are signs that addiction to opium is growing in Afghanistan. He says young Afghans who are addicted often pick up the habit in Iran and Pakistan, where they go to seek work. Both countries are coping with serious drug problems in the face of the flood of drugs from Afghanistan. There are some one million addicts in Iran, and twice that number in Pakistan.
But the drug expert says that while addiction in Afghanistan appears to be rising, the Taliban is not likely to face the irony of large-scale drug addiction thanks to its own opium trade anytime soon. Punishment for drug addiction in Taliban-ruled areas is harsh, and urban areas where drug users are most likely to live are firmly under the militia's control. Labrousse says:
"The Taliban have a good control of the cities and the rural people are not traditionally drug consumers, they have another way of life. So, I don't think [Afghanistan] will become a very important consumer country like Pakistan is."
UN drug experts estimate that opium poppies are now grown over some 2.3 percent of all of Afghanistan, with almost all of the cultivation within areas under Taliban control. The country produced some 4,600 tons of opium last year and now is the source of some three-quarters of all the world's illegal opium supply.