Warlords set to reap profits of poppy harvestBY MICHAEL EVANS, DEFENCE EDITOR
THE advance by the Northern Alliance across Afghanistan has led to a resurgence in the opium business — and a new dilemma for the American-led coalition.
The destruction of Afghanistan’s opium trade has been one of the aims of the military campaign, because it has helped to fund decades of civil war there. American and British special forces troops in Afghanistan have been hunting for stockpiles of raw opium as part of a covert mission to identify nonmilitary targets for US bombers.
However, the elimination of opium stocks has now become complicated by politics, because the Taleban have been forced to withdraw from about 80 per cent of the territory they had held for the past five years and tribal warlords have regained control of some of the most productive poppy-growing areas.
As a result, Afghans compelled last year by the Taleban to switch from profitable opium-producing poppygrowing to conventional farming have reverted to their old ways. Anti-Taleban warlords are waiting to reap the profits.
The unresolved issue of opium production, one of the few negative side-effects of the Northern Alliance’s advances in recent weeks, is causing increasing anxiety in Washington and London. Intelligence sources said that a close watch was being kept on the opium business and every effort was being made to trace stocks of the drug, which is processed into heroin and sold largely on the American and European markets.
Some weeks ago British officials made clear that American bombing targets included opium stocks, because the sale of the drug provided crucial funds for arms-buying. Although Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taleban leader, banned the cultivation of opium poppy fields last year as part of his strict interpretation of Islamic law — and many of the fields were publicly set on fire — Western intelligence agencies were convinced that huge stockpiles were concealed by the regime to drive up the price of the drug on the open market to ensure even bigger profits. US reconnaissance satellites have been monitoring the changing farming landscape and, as the map shows, in the most popular poppy-growing areas in Afghanistan, notably in the lowlands of the south and east, there is already evidence that the opium business is back in favour. Yet earlier this year the United Nations Drug Control Programme said that the Taleban decree had virtually stopped opium production in Afghanistan, reducing the outflow from 3,328 tonnes to 188 tonnes in one year.
For the US-led coalition, the prospect of a resurgence in opium-smuggling across the borders into Pakistan has presented a difficult challenge. The present military strategy is based on maintaining close links with the tribal warlords of the Northern Alliance, some of whom will now be in a position to benefit from the potentially huge profits from the opium trade.
Afghans who had been reduced to survival farming under the Taleban poppy-growing ban are now busily tilling their fields and planting poppy seeds for what is expected to be a bumper opium crop next March and April. The farmers will make up to 15 times more money with poppies than they did with wheat. Unless the West can provide sufficient investment to encourage the Afghan farmers to devote their energies to conventional farming, Afghanistan looks likely to become once again the world’s top opium supplier by next summer. The US Drug Enforcement Administration had acknowleged that the Taleban prohibition on poppy-growing had had a dramatic effect. With the cut in supplies from Afghanistan, the price of a kilo of raw opium rose from $30 (£21) last year, before Mullah Omar’s decree, to $700 in early September this year.
Warlords in Afghanistan have always funded their fiefdoms through opium sales, and in the small sector of the country that the Northern Alliance controlled before the Taleban’s collapse poppy-growing had risen threefold.
Before the decree, more than 85 per cent of the opium was produced in six provinces, including Helmand, Kandahar, Urzgan and Nangarhar. As these provinces fall progressively into the hands of the anti-Taleban forces, it will become more difficult for the US-led coalition to target either opium stockpiles or poppy fields.
Defence intelligence sources said that Pashtun warlords, at present still pro-Taleban, held sway in many of these areas, but that they were expected to swap sides. In negotiating a future government for Afghanistan, control of the opium fields — and the secret stockpiles — could become a key sticking-point.
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