Despite its preaching of Islamic values, Afghanistan's ruling Taliban has a tawdry secret: Until recently, it was the world's largest producer of opium, using taxes on drugs to finance its military as it helped spread addiction to its neighbors in Asia and to Europe.
Only in July 2000 did Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar finally condemn the cultivation of opium taking place openly outside his stronghold of Kandahar, and in one edict he brought an output of 3,200 tons a year to a virtual standstill.
But with war and uncertainty looming, and the possibility that the extremist Islamic regime's grip on power will be loosened by a U.S. military assault, international anti-narcotics officials fear that the recent victory in the war against drugs may be short-lived--undone by the new war against terrorism.
They say they see signs already of Afghan traders and smugglers dumping stores of drugs onto the world market rather than risking their loss in a U.S. assault. Since the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and near Washington, they say, heroin prices have plummeted here in neighboring Pakistan.
They also suspect that Afghan farmers will return to their old habits of poppy cultivation within the next few weeks--it is nearly planting time--because they know that the Taliban government is in trouble.
These officials paint two scenarios, with the same result: Either the Taliban will be overthrown after a U.S. assault, rendering Omar's decree moot, or the Taliban movement will have no choice but to relax the ban at a time when its forces are fighting for their survival.
Drugs thrive in a war culture, because warlords need the money from such illicit sales to buy weapons, and growers and smugglers need an environment of lawlessness to operate without fear of the police.
That's why drug production had burgeoned in Afghanistan since the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979. The Soviets were ousted 10 years later, but fighting among moujahedeen factions, and then between the Taliban and its foes, has meant a two-decade drug bonanza.
When opium cultivation peaked in 1999, Afghanistan produced 4,600 tons, or three-quarters of the world's supply. In 2000, the last growing season before Omar's ban, it dropped to about 3,200 tons, mainly because of drought.
Bernard Frahi, the U.N. drug control program representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, estimates that at least 3,000 fewer tons of opium were produced in the world this year as a result of the strict Taliban program against poppy cultivation.
As a result of Omar's ban, most of the opium produced in Afghanistan this year has been in the meager areas controlled by the opposition Northern Alliance. According to a U.N. report Friday, 150 tons of opium were grown on the alliance's territory, versus 50 tons in the much larger territory controlled by the Taliban.
But the Taliban ban hasn't slowed the flow of drugs out of Afghanistan, according to Pakistan's Anti-Narcotics Force. The army officer in charge of the force, Maj. Gen. Zafar Abbas, says his 6,000 troops are interdicting just as much contraband as ever, bolstering his belief that drug producers and traders already had plenty of drugs stored and in the pipeline.
In fact, British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week accused the Taliban of being the world's biggest hoarder of drugs and seemed to suggest that the United States and its allies might make the stores of drugs a prime target for military action if they find them.
"The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets," Blair said. "That is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy."
Blair Links Drugs to Taliban, Al Qaeda
Blair, presenting his government's outline of the role of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban government in the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States, underscored the role of drug money in aiding and financing both organizations. He said that both Al Qaeda and the Taliban exploit the drug trade, and singled out the Taliban for protecting the storehouses of drug suppliers.
In a book published last year, "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia," author Ahmed Rashid pointed out that opium taxes fueled the Taliban's war against the Northern Alliance, enabling the regime to win control of about 95% of the country.
Drug money "funded the weapons, ammunition and fuel for the war," Rashid wrote. "It provided food and clothes for the soldiers and paid the salaries, transport and perks that the Taliban leadership allowed its fighters."
Beginning in 1996, U.N. officials quietly opened discussions with the Taliban about staunching the flow of drugs, offering in exchange financial aid to farmers who convert to growing other crops. In the course of these discussions, Omar agreed to let U.N. officials conduct surveys of opium fields in the country.
In his Islamabad office, which looks out onto the green mountains leading to Afghanistan, Frahi has a framed photograph showing him crouched in front of a beautiful field of red-and-white poppy flowers. Next to him is an Afghan fighter wielding a weapon.
The photo was taken before Omar's ban; today, Frahi says, those poppy fields have been planted with wheat--a fact verified by the extensive international inspections--and the Taliban deserves credit for it.
He and other anti-narcotics officials are proud of their three-year effort to persuade Omar to agree to the ban on opium production. But Frahi says he's not convinced that the ban will survive another growing season, which begins with planting in the next few weeks.
"The ingredients for illegal cultivation are there," he warned. "You have a war situation, a complete absence of government, a breakdown in order, a lack of enough compensation, and starvation coupled with poverty. Then if you add the need for the Taliban to get help from some [opium-growing] tribes. . . . "
No matter what happens, he says, it is likely that the Taliban will be too preoccupied with staying in power to devote many resources to enforcing the ban on drug farming that Omar imposed, with difficulty, last year.
The poppy-planting season begins in mid-October and continues through November in Pakistan, so this is the critical time for farmers. The international community will not have a good idea what they decided to grow until at least February, when the crops begin to flourish.
"Today we have all reasons to be pessimistic," Frahi said.
Abbas, Pakistan's anti-drug czar, says he is already hearing rumors that Omar has lifted the poppy-growing ban, although he could not confirm the reports.
Frahi says it is remarkable that Omar's ban was a success, considering that opium brings in three times as much money as food crops such as wheat, and that Afghan farmers are desperate for income.
Abbas, who oversees a mixed force of police and soldiers eradicating the poppy crop in Pakistan, says he doesn't believe that Afghanistan's success is sustainable because it didn't do enough to improve life for the growers.
He believes that the best method for getting farmers to stop growing poppies is a "balanced approach" in which the government invests in roads, water systems, education and other infrastructure. That would reduce desperation and create jobs in rural areas, he says, so that poppy-growing ceases to be seen as the only route to prosperity.
"When you have all these things, you can demand [they] stop growing. And if they grow anyway, we carry out forcible eradication," he said.
Ravages of Addiction Part of War's Cost
In Pakistan, such social programs coupled with enforcement and eradication have had a more durable effect, he asserts, pointing out that Pakistan's opium production fell from about 800 tons a year in the mid-1980s to a fraction of a ton last year.
The human toll of the Afghan drug trade can be witnessed in two neighboring Islamic countries, Iran and Pakistan, where the number of addicts in just a few years has skyrocketed from near zero to 1.2 million and 4 million, respectively.
When people think of the cost of 22 years of war in Afghanistan, they should consider the unhappy group of glassy-eyed men gathered in a dusty, wind-swept cemetery in the Pakistani border city of Quetta.
On a recent day, Atta Mohammed Bali, 53, emerged from his drug den in the cemetery--the ruins of a former police post--and looked back on his life.
"It has spoiled my life," he said through gaunt cheeks and a mournful demeanor, recalling jobs lost, his ruined marriage and his mother dying brokenhearted. Once a self-styled "big fish" in the trade, he now cadges money from relatives and neighbors to pay for a gram-a-day habit.
Bali and his friends crouch together under filthy blankets to get their hits. Not far away, children gambol between the mounds of raised earthen graves and the weather-eroded tombstones. It is a bleak place.
Addicts rarely inject heroin here, and when they do, they often die because the drugs aren't properly diluted. These addicts prefer to smoke: They place a small amount of heroin on a piece of foil from a cigarette pack, hold a flame underneath and frantically inhale the smoke through thin metal pipettes.
Bali says he has already seen the price of heroin falling because of the rumors of war in Afghanistan. In the last 15 days, he says, the price has fallen from about $5 a gram to about $2.
And if war actually breaks out? "Then there will be more heroin," he said, "and the prices will fall some more."