The Afghan drug trade is attracting new attention as a source of funding for the Taliban regime and, indirectly, terrorists operating in the country. U.S. and British officials cited the connection this week. In an interview with RFE/RL, the UN's top drug control official discusses the role of the powerful opium-trafficking groups in Afghanistan.
United Nations, 5 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Long before terrorism became Afghanistan's most worrisome export, drug trafficking was seen as the country's main threat to regional stability.
Now, the illegal Afghan opium trade is being cited as a source of funding for Afghanistan's ruling Taliban and the Al-Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden, the primary suspect in the 11 September attacks against the United States.
On 3 October, U.S. drug enforcement officials told Congress that narcotics provide an important revenue source for the Taliban. They said there is a likelihood that bin Laden also benefits from the Afghan drug trade.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair drew a more direct link in his speech to parliament yesterday:
"For its part, the Taliban regime has provided bin Laden a safe haven within which to operate and allowed him to establish terrorist training camps. They jointly exploit the Afghan drugs trade. In return for active Al-Qaeda support, the Taliban allow Al-Qaeda to operate freely, including the planning, training and preparing for terrorist activity. In addition, they provide security for the stockpiles of drugs."
An expert panel commissioned by the UN Security Council described a similar scenario in a report issued in May as part of a review of the sanctions imposed on the Taliban. That report said funds raised by the production and trading of opium and heroin have been used to finance the training of terrorists in Afghanistan and support the operations of extremists in neighboring states.
The head of the UN's Vienna-based Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, Pino Arlacchi, concurs with these views. In an interview with RFE/RL, Arlacchi emphasized that a recent development labeled by some regional experts as "narco-Islam" is very much alive:
"Bin Laden is not an isolated figure in Afghanistan. He has many friends, he has many partners -- for instance, the people of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan -- who are known traffickers. So I would be very surprised if he would shy away from trafficking, given the network of friends that he has and partners and fighters."
The revenues from the opium trade, Arlacchi says, are considerable. Prior to this year, the UN drug control office estimates that the cultivation of opium poppies earned between $100 million and $250 million per year.
And despite the official Taliban ban on poppy cultivation this year, Arlacchi says the crop has already generated a turnover of $56 million. With dwindling supplies, the price per kilogram of opium has reached $300 this year, he said, compared to $30 per kilo last year.
The UN drug control chief says the Taliban routinely taxes 10 percent of agricultural production, including opium poppies, giving them a major revenue flow from the illicit trade.
Arlacchi says although both drug traffickers and the Taliban have benefited from their partnership, the traffickers constitute a major force of their own within Afghanistan. Organized crime and the trafficking networks in Afghanistan, says Arlacchi, represent a force that could probably contend with both the Northern Alliance and Taliban in terms of firepower.
Proof of this, he says, can be witnessed on the Iranian border, where years of battles between Iranian authorities and drug traffickers have taken thousands of lives:
"They are heavily armed, very well equipped and also very well connected outside the country. Of course, they are not political fighters, they are criminals. But they are quite well organized, and they are able to use political movements and political parties very well and to survive any change in Afghanistan."
The ban on opium production had been considered one of the international community's few successes in dealing with the Taliban. The latest estimates of the UN drug control agency show opium poppies grown on about 7,600 hectares of land, a 91 percent reduction in growing area from last year.
Some UN officials and other regional experts are cynical about the Taliban's motives, saying the large stockpile of opium in the country was never destroyed and has now risen sharply in value. Another concern, Arlacchi says, is that new, expanded cultivation may take place with any weakening of the Taliban's rule.
According to Arlacchi, opium poppies, which are able to grow in the country's harsh, dry weather, are the crop of choice in times of hardship in Afghanistan:
"Opium requires very little water, requires no infrastructure. In Afghanistan, there are no roads, no storage places. Opium can be stored for decades without deteriorating, and it can be sold very easily. It doesn't need markets. The traffickers, the traders, they go up to houses of single farmers."
Arlacchi says trafficking in opium is a multiethnic affair in Afghanistan, with ethnic Uzbeks and Tajiks controlling the trade in areas near the border with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. He says with military action now expected against the Taliban for harboring terrorists, the drug traffickers will be poised to shift allegiances to whatever group next comes to power:
"No one who is fighting in Afghanistan is clean. Drug trafficking and production and trade have financed the Afghan civil war since the beginning. And it is very important that this factor should not be missed in the picture of the future of Afghanistan."
He says the long-term solution to the trafficking problem must start with a massive reconstruction of Afghanistan, a bottom-up approach similar to the Marshall Plan in post-World War II Europe. At the same time, Arlacchi says, international authorities will need to maintain vigilance on poppy cultivation under whatever new government leads the country.